This afternoon's keynote speaker was none other than fearless newsman and recently converted HDTV acolyte Dan Rather. Forgive the length of this post, but I'm going to just put up a transcript of a segment of the discussion that I think was particularly important.
In other words, we interrupt PopSci's regularly scheduled technology blog to bring you "The Future of Journalistic Integrity," after the jump. —Megan Miller
Journalism in the past decade or so has lost its guts. The old business of access journalism has degenerated as a craft. You trade “go along to get along” attitude for access. The danger is real and present of being accused of being “antipatriotic” or not supporting the troops —which are really serious charges in a climate of war.
The patriotic journalist would be on his or her feet asking the tough questions, thinking, “My role as a journalist is to act as a form of checks and balances.” That’s getting to be rare.
What we need in journalism is a spine transplant.
In recent years, the nexus between powerful journalists and people of corporate power has become far too close. That was transparent in the Libby trial. I won’t except myself from this criticism. You make this unstated agreement: “You take care of me, I’ll take care of you.” This is very dangerous. You want a good-eye powerful source to talk to you, to appear on your newscast and, while negotiating, you get closer and closer to the source. You can get so close that you become part of the problem. These powerful people use journalists and will use them up to the point where journalists say: Whoa, that’s too far. A great deal of the time, a source is using the reporter, and vice versa. As soon as the source begins to feel the reporter can be pulled in and be part of the team, he’s gone too far.
I do think that journalists need to begin to rethink, very clearly, their relationships with sources. If you have a wide and deep reservoir of sources, it’s very hard for a source to seal you out. Say you call a few times and a source won’t talk to you. You go outside, get some information, and then you call back. You say to the secretary, “Mark well, this is the 15th time I’ve called, and I’m going on the evening news with a piece of information about your superior that’s not all that flattering. If he wants to get his oar in, he’d better call me back by 5:45.” But if you do that and then you think, “Now I’ll sit there on my butt, sip a sarsaparilla, and by 4:15 he’ll be spilling his guts to me”—the minute you think that, you’re in trouble.
I think journalists need to go down a long list of “Do we still believe?”
Do we still believe that the best journalism is “independent”?
Do we still believe it’s important to have the gumption to ask the tough questions?
Do we still believe it’s important, if I’m the next person up at the press corps and the last person’s question has been ignored, to put my question aside and say, “Mr. Mayor, you didn’t answer her question”?
Do we still believe that, excepting a few important national secrets, government documents belong to we the people?
Do we still believe that the president is not a son of God but elected by we the people?
Do we still believe you listen, you take notes, you say “OK, that’s what they say is going on, now let’s find out what’s really going on?
Do we still believe journalism is a craft that we need to nurture, and not play it safe? We look at the copy and say: Whoa, this is tough stuff, and if I run this, I’m going to pay a price. Do we water it down just a tad, or do we still believe that our job is to be investigative and independent?
I’ve never liked the phrase “investigative reporter,” because it’s redundant. Or it’s supposed to be. But I think we all know what it means. The reporter who takes a hard-nosed attitude is an endangered species. One reason it’s gone badly out of fashion is, for example, when’s the last time you saw a one-hour hard-hitting documentary on the news? The corporations that own the major news outlets have gotten larger and larger, and news, as part of the business, has gotten smaller and smaller. The gap between the ownership and those on the news has gotten so wide, there’s so many people between them, and the interests of the corporation as a whole have gotten so diverse—selling billboards, airplanes—they’d just as soon do away with news entirely, except they have important business to do in Washington and local governments. They have regulations they want eased or stopped. Television stations want regulatory relief from the FCC. They want approval for products they want to manufacture. I think you get the drift here. These are not bad people, but they’re focused on what’s good for the corporation as a whole.
Investigative reporting, by its definition, is going to make someone unhappy. But if you’re the head of one of these big companies, someone is going to come to you and say, "Listen, you asked me to do you a favor, but one of your newsmen is taking the hide off one of our guys." And then you’ve got a conflict of interest.
You’ll find that the real competition has narrowed in the way that some large corporations—maybe four or five of them—are controlling 80 percent of the media output. And we need to think about that. There’s increasingly less competition. Next time you hear someone say, “I believe in the capitalist system,” tell them Dan Rather says: Amen. So do I. But do we really have as much competition as is important for us as a democracy?
Journalists have a role as watchdogs. A watchdog is not an attack dog. An attack dog goes for the throat, but a watchdog barks at everything that is suspicious. That’s the American ideal. Not that we will always do it gently, or that we will always bite, but that we will always be barking.
**The Internet is a tremendous tool for news and information, education, and what the late Edward Murrow referred to as “illumination.” Right now, it’s at the Beatles stage: If Elvis was the early stage, and the Beatles moved things forward, we’re at the Beatles stage. The potential is vast, but I have no idea where it’s going. Whatever you think the Internet may become 15 years from now, that will happen in three to five years. When the Wright brothers first flew, they said, “In 75 to 100 years, we may be flying coast to coast.” And lo and behold, we were doing intercontinental flights in 25 years.
Are there some blog sites that send out reporters to wear out their shoes and make phone calls and do it right? Yes. Journalism is about integrity. It seeks to suss out facts. But I think there’s a problem with anonymity. If there’s a business partner you want undercut, you can do that anonymously on a blog and there’s no accountability. You can say something terrible about your neighbor. But I think these are problems to be overcome. The marketplace will balance this, but it could take some time. I don’t have a solution to this.
One way that blogs can be powerful is in going in and holding people accountable. If you think the right questions are not being asked, ask those questions. Hold a press corps accountable and say, “These are major truths that are not being told.” So many raindrops will eventually make a dent in a rock.
The form so often is “The governor or the president says this,” and as a journalist you say, “What a blob of steaming horsehockey.” You say, “Here’s what he says. Here’s what his critics say.” But when is the last time in the press corps or mainstream media that you heard, “The governor said this, but that’s a lie. Here are 15 facts that demonstrate why”? You don’t see that done often enough in the sideways dance that’s done nowadays.
There’s a feeling of “I’m pretty big. I’m an insider, and I’m part of what makes the country go round. I know a lot of things that I can’t tell people because it could hurt the country.” When that toxic gas gets loose among journalists, we need to be careful of the danger to the country as a whole.
It used to be clearly defined what “off the record” was. What “on background” was. When talking to a source, you knew what the rules were. It was incumbent on the source to say, “On what basis are we talking here?” The assumption was “I’m calling you. Everything is on the record.” It wasn’t the journalist saying, “I want you to tell me things, but I’m going to protect you.” You’d say, “I’d like everything to be on the record.” The source would say, “I can’t do that.” And you’d say, “Then I’d like to take that on background,” and they’d say, “I’m afraid you’re going to source it too closely, so that people will figure out it’s me.”
And then you might go to “on deep background” or “off the record.” My own definition is: If I tell you off the record, this didn’t happen. We didn’t have this conversation. They can tear my tongue out and send me to jail, and I’ll never tell.
If those aren’t the rules now, what are the new rules? How can we put information out if we can’t put people’s names on it, can’t trace it back to anyone? How do we protect our integrity? Where one gets in trouble—and I’ve been there—is that you go a little bit further each time. “You know this is a good guy, and he knows a lot that I need to know.” And the next thing you know, you’re protecting him to the point where you’re taking big chunks out of your own credibility.
This is like the Ten Commandments: You know them, you believe in them deeply—but how do you live up to them every day? It’s like that capital-“I” independent journalism. The ideal is: I will stick to my standards, I will protect my integrity, and if I don’t get the report for the evening broadcast, deal with it.
Another one to add to the list of “Do we believes”: Do we still believe that the most important thing in a constitutional democracy is to have an informed citizen? The only way to make democratic decisions about "Do we go to war?" and "Do we make a trade agreement?" is to give the people as much information as we can. This is the duty of the independent journalist.
In recent years, individuals have not been privy to as much information as necessary to make informed decisions.
There are people who believe that journalists are too aggressive, too independent. That’s obviously the direct opposite of what I believe. But these people say: "You know what? We’ve spent a lifetime in government, and we know better. We will parse out the information and tell you what you need to know." That’s not the American way. Give me the truth—give me the whole truth—and let me make my decision.
Listen, you’ve been a terrific audience, and if you’ll indulge me, I’d like to tick off a few of my notes. First, a plug for HDTV, for whom I’m working now. [PopSci ed. note: This kind of shocked us after all the talk of independent journalism. Shilling for HDTV at a time like this? Did these statements undermine all the inspirational talk about journalistic independence?]
Let me close with one thing I was hoping to say today:
Archibald MacLeish was one of the great Americans of the 20th century. Google him up. He was talking in the wake of World War II, and he said: What happens an ocean away, 3,000 miles away, we tend to have the illusion that it doesn’t really happen. It’s a dangerous illusion. Television can make a disaster or war seem smaller than it actually is, when captured inside a tiny box. High-definition television, on the other hand, gives us the ability to see these things more as they actually are. Murrow was a preacher of the gospel that we have to stop thinking of ourselves, the United States of America, as being at the center of the universe. We’ve reached the point where we are world leaders, but we need to lose the illusion that things that happen far away don’t matter that much. The fire, the blood, the bones of the dying—it’s real. But if you aren’t careful, it descends into a kind of videogame. “Once again, they blew up some people in Baghdad. . . ” We need the realization that things are not that far away. What happens on the streets of Baghdad or Kabul or Darfur does matter on Main Street. —Dan Rather
What are your thoughts on Rather's SXSW speech? Tell us in the comments section.