‘The media should not turn itself into contortions trying to be ‘fair’ to the president’: Dan Rather on ‘unprecedented challenge’ of covering Donald Trump

Journalism Is Not A Crime: Dan Rather has seen a lot in his career, he tells Andrew Buncombe, but nothing like this 

Tuesday 06 October 2020 19:46 BST
Dan Rather left CBS News in 2005
Dan Rather left CBS News in 2005

Dan Rather has seen a lot.

After starting his journalistic career in the early 1950s with the Associated Press in his home state of Texas, he switched to what was rapidly becoming the most powerful medium of its day - television.

Over the the decades he has witnessed a lot of history, and reported on many of his generation’s most seminal episodes - the assassination of John F Kennedy, the struggle for civil rights in the American South, the presidency of Richard Nixon, and the nation’s struggle to dominate the space race.

For almost 25 years he was the anchor of the CBS Evening News, making him one of the most recognisable broadcasters on television, when the networks perhaps never had more influence.

Yet at the age of 88 - he turns 89 on Halloween - Rather says he has never seen anything like the presidency of Donald Trump.

He says the president has trampled over the usual rules observed by those who occupy the office and showed such disdain, Rather thinks the president himself has no respect for the office he holds.

The Independent has launched a campaign to defend press freedoms in the United States – Journalism Is Not A Crime – in the run up to the election and afterwards.

It did so after dozens of journalists – including one of its own correspondents – were arrested by police while covering protests for racial justice that took place this summer that were triggered by the killing by police in Minneapolis of George Floyd, an unarmed African American.

The death of the 46-year-old, who was videoed saying he could not breathe as a white officer knelt on his neck for almost nine minutes, was just the latest in a succession of fatal encounters between the police and unarmed people of colour.

In a telephone interview with The Independent, conducted barely a month before the election, and as Mr Trump prepared to fly to Walter Reed National Military Medical Centre after testing positive for Covid-19, Rather discussed many of the issues currently confronting the nation.

He talked about the challenges for the media in covering the presidency, how the most dangerous night for the media may turn out to be election day, and how he views the campaign of Joe Biden.

See below for the full interview:

Dan Rather: Donald Trump is 'mean as a wolverine'

Q: How do you judge the relationship of Donald Trump and the media compared to other presidents you have seen?

A: There's no comparison. There's no comparison to be made. We as a country, as a people or society, have never been through anything like this. And the press has not been through anything like this.

And certainly not in my lifetime. The closest would be the Nixon years. However, there are great differences between now and the Nixon time. This is unprecedented.

And let’s mark that you I are speaking early in October, before the election. And I think Election Day, election evening, in the days following election, may very well put a whole new stress on American institutions in general and the press.

Q: What is the impact of Trump demonising the media?

A: I think the impact has been devastating on so many levels.

It’s the damage done to American institutions. Fundamental institutions, the separation of powers, independence of the courts, press freedom. At almost every turn, it's been extremely damaging.

There's no president in the history of that country that has [wrought] more havoc both in spirit and in substance, on this experiment of a constitutional republic based on the principles of freedom and democracy, which America has been all these years. There's nothing to compare to it.

I want to always try to be careful not to overstate things, but I've come to believe that this has been one of our problems for those of us in the press. That we’re so worried about possibly overstating things, that we have understated for too long.

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We keep looking for normalcy. What I mean by that is that, okay, now Trump won the election. He's the new president. And there was a high expectation, to say nothing of hope, that as president he’d make some efforts to operate within the bounds of the law, but also operate within what’s normal for a president.

The president would at least make some effort to be president of all the people, not just the people who voted for him. That's just one example. So when I say that the press spent too long, and I include myself in this criticism, too long engaging in false equivalency, and so called both-sideism quote, unquote, and Donald Trump is taking advantage of that.

Don't misunderstand me, I think that, particularly in the last year-and-a-half, I think the press has done a better job of saying to itself ‘Look, we have to report on him and who he is, and what he's doing, not what we hoped that he’d do and hoped that he would be’.

And one small example of that would be the so called White House press briefings. We have known for a long time that the so called White House press briefing is not a press briefing at all. It's a propaganda opportunity. And for months, even years, we went through this - the press gathers, the press secretary comes out for what was expected to be a briefing. It's not even designed to be a press briefing. You know, it's filled with outright lies I'm sorry to say, I always hate to use the word lie. But you know, you have to use it because that's what it is - lies, misinformation disinformation, mockery, insults.

Q: What are the challenges facing the US media in covering Trump, when he's not just a politician, but also the head of state? How can the media say this person is being dishonest, or he’s telling lies repeatedly, and not have readers or viewers which off?

A: Well, first of all, I'm really glad you asked the question that way. And I'm smiling, I'm sorry you can’t see my smile. Because I sometimes have difficulty getting my fellow Americans to fully understand that in the American president, we have, for better or for worse, combined the head of state with the head of government.

An awful lot of Americans, I would say, maybe a majority of Americans, don't fully understand the implications of that.

So it is a tradition in the press to try to strike that necessary balance.

So when you rise to question the president, or ask a question of the president, you’re not just asking for the head of government, as you would be, say, in the UK, and talking to the  prime minister. The prime minister's head of government, he's not in state. And the Queen is the head of state, the sovereign is head of state. There is a clear demarcation.

So that’s the tradition of the American press, and I include myself in this. I was a White House correspondent for 10 years, and I never walked through the gates of the White House, and not think it was a privilege to do so. And you never met anybody who had more respect for the office of the president of the United States.

But what this leads to, and I don't mean to talk your question to death, but obviously, this is a question that I really feel strongly about. That, when it comes to, for example, asking questions of the president, as an American journalist you want to have great respect for the office, great respect that he’s this combination of head of state and head of government. But if you aren't careful, it can lapse over into something else. What I tried to remind myself, after I've been there a while, is – Yes, he's president of the United States. He's head of government and head of state, but he is not the descendent of a Sun God.

He's another person who's been given the highest honour that we can bestow on any person by making him president.

Dan Rather covered the presidency of Richard Nixon

Now, that was the tradition, it’s long been the tradition of journalists dealing with the president. Along comes Donald Trump, unprecedented, in that he himself has no respect to the office.

And by treating president Trump in a, quote, normal way, and stretching this respect to the office, overlapping with respect to the person, that helps him with his lies, and helps him with his this cheating, with all these difficult words we’ve already used.

All of this has helped him and the press, including myself, has been far too slow to wake up to the fact and saying, you know, the president cannot and should not be treated [so.]

The press should not turn itself into contortions, trying to be, quote, fair, unquote, to the president. And this is something you're going to have to continue struggling with.

The American press may have its most severe test of the Trump presidency yet, and that’s saying a lot, on election day, election night, in the days following.

Because the president is making it really crystal clear that if he can make the vote appear fraudulent, and he’s already laying the groundwork. And in some press quarters in America this is being pointed out, but I think not enough. Look, he's telling you. He's not even hiding it, through intimidation, manipulation …

He said that if the election shows that he is losing, he plans to discredit it. He's already discrediting it.

This is really serious in a country such as ours, to have a leader do that. And we've never had anyone do it before.

Q: In 2002 you said patriotism had run amok and was in danger of trampling the media in the aftermath of 9/11. And I think you're making this point now - that the media needs to stand back and be objective and tell the truth, call out lies. But isn't there a danger that if you do that, and you lose your readers, you lose your audience, we will become even more in our silos? So if you like the president, you'll watch Fox News. If you despise him, you'll watch MSNBC. If you’re somewhere in the middle, well okay, good luck. Where is that sort of voice that you were, speaking to the nation, speaking to all Americans, in the 60s and 70s? We don't have that, right?

A: Well, the danger is real. But for journalists, what we have to do, is fear not.

Because this is a real peril for us to begin to think about [if] we're going to tailor our coverage to what we think the audience wants to hear. And we’re so afraid … You can’t be operating from a place based out of fear.

But if you think that to speak the truth, to say what is the truth, if I find the facts, analyse the facts, connect the dots, and get as close to the truth as is humanly possible, which is our goal, if I do that, and speak the truth, then I'm going to lose viewers or readers or listeners, once you begin to follow that line of reasoning, to be afraid to do what you know you should do, then you’ve done something to yourself and you’ve done something to your fellow citizens.

Frankly, I think that journalists who are going to think about it are going to say to themselves, I'm going to do the work, I’m going to do it as well as I can, I’m going to get as close to the truth as I can. And the chips will have to fall where they may.

But I'm not suggesting that this is not something that journalists have to struggle with. It's all well and good for me. Let's face it, you know, I'll be 89 years old coming up here fairly soon. I'm on the backside now. So I recognise that is very easy for me to say these things. And if you're a reporter for, you know, a medium sized market newspaper or working in a local television station or radio station, it's a whole lot more difficult to hold to these principles.

But with as much humility as I could muster, I say that. Fear not. Do the work. Do what's compatible with your professional standards and your conscience and hope for the best. That's pretty much where we are.

Q: How do you think Mr Biden is doing in terms of challenging Mr Trump on these key issues - Covid, the economy, racial justice?

A: Well, he's doing the best he can, and I'm pausing only because I’ve known vice president Biden for a long time.

I'm not a close friend of his, I'm not close to him. But I've covered him over the whole span of his career.

His strength is that he is a decent person and a decently-intending person. And he has other strengths as as a political candidate. But he is not a strong orator. He is not that kind of politician who commands every landscape he occupies.

In the face of a candidate such as Donald Trump, he has some disadvantages. But here we are, what, about a month from the election? And by any reasonable analysis you’d have to say he’s doing pretty well up to now.

Q: Do you think he has a chance of winning? Do you think he's going to win?

A: I learned a long time ago that he who lives by the crystal ball, tends to eat a lot of broken glass. And I have eaten more than my share, so I am not gong to make a projection.

I will say this – that Donald Trump can win. There is a path, the same path he used in 2016. Biden clearly leads at this point.

But there’s the double problem. One, can he, does he, get enough Democratic voters to the polls, because he, he being Biden, may have to win overwhelmingly in order to take office. Because if it’s close he may never get anything and never get into office.

I'm sorry to say that, but there is the prospect. So I just want to caution. I think Biden leads at the moment, as best I can make out. But neither he nor any other Democrat or anybody else can kid themselves, that Donald Trump has a very solid, loyal base. And there is a path by which he can win.

Q: What do you think that Mr Trump having coronavirus tells us about the way he conducts himself?

A: Honestly, I don't know what to think about it. Certainly, first of all, there's a certain inevitability. When you insist on doing what he was doing, not wearing a mask and going into large crowds of people, there’s a certain inevitability. Will it change the dynamic of the race? It could change the dynamic of the race if he has difficulty recovering. Can he or will he go into a second second so-called debate. I want to put debate in quotation marks, two more of these joint appearances, whatever you want to call them. It's almost a sacrilege to call them a debate. But to answer your question we don't know enough yet to know how serious this is, and if it is serious it has the potential to change the dynamic for him, [to] the advantage of Trump, by once again changing the conversation.

He desperately needed to change the narrative of the race, in the wake of the disastrous joint appearance with him and Biden. And the narrative of the campaign was Trump had a very bad debate performance. Biden did pretty well. So this changes the subject. It's just too early. A lot depends on how seriously he's affected. But it does have the potential of changing the dynamic with the race.

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