TV news icon Dan Rather — my brother's former boss — was the guest on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, talking about “liberal media bias” and the politicization of TV news. The embedded video clip and full transcript follow below the fold.
Jon Stewart: My guest tonight, a legendary newsman, you can see him every week on HDNet’s Dan Rather Reports, his new book is called Rather Outspoken, please welcome back to the program Dan Rather!
Dan Rather: How are you, Jon?
Stewart: Have a seat. Come and sit! [applause] How are ya? Nice to see you!
Rather: Nice to see you — I didn’t realize you’d become the Donald Trump re-election headquarters.
Stewart: I — can I tell you something? — what a joy. What a gift that would be — imagine what he would do, just decorating-wise, to the White House, just “Trump White House and Casino”; think about it! [laughter] The book is called Rather Outspoken. This — you know, it covers your whole — I did not realize — you know, there’s beautiful pictures in here of you. You sort of grew up in the Old West; I did not realize that that was your background.
Rather: Well, I grew up on the Texas coast. When I grew up there, it was pretty much the Old West, that’s true.
Stewart: Great pictures of you and your mom, standing in front of, you know, old 1930’s automobile on the Plains, pictures of you in 2nd grade and 3rd grade. Do you recall that life like Little House on the Prairie, or was it like — when you were a kid, was it a drag? Like, what —
Rather: No, no, I had a terrific childhood, and I know that can be boring. I had rheumatic fever when I was between 10 and 11 for about 3 years, so I was bedridden. That I remember most vividly because I was bedridden and had to stay still in bed — it was an incurable disease at the time — but, you know, before that and after that, I had what I consider a wonderful childhood. Both my parents worked with their back and their hands, very hard-working people.
Rather: And we were all willing, my brother and sisters and I, we started working very early, and that was a real blessing.
Stewart: How do you bounce back from rheumatic fever to — what, six years later? — being in the Marines? That’s — I mean, that’s a pretty quick recovery, no?
Rather: Well, I wouldn’t say “quick recovery.” I did recover — this is not unusual — when I got to be about 14, my father was smart enough to send me to work in brush-cutting crews, pipeline, and oilfield rigs, and I got my body back, and I was 4F for the Service because rheumatic fever was an eliminating disease —
Rather: — but I’m not proud about it, I lied about it and joined the Marines, but I had one of the shortest and least distinguished careers in the whole history of the Marine Corps.
Stewart: You and I — it’s so weird — because I got my body also through brush cutting and through drilling....
Rather: Your nose is growing.
Stewart: Yes, I know, it is growing. You’ve worked as a TV newsman for a long time, so this may seem like a strange question: Has television been a boon to people’s knowledge and information about politics, or has it not? Because, we were talking earlier about how television changed the game; at a certain point it seemed like television outsmarted the politicians — has that reversed now?
Rather: I think it has. I think that the politicians have now outsmarted television. Overall, in the main, I think television has added to everybody’s knowledge about almost everything, but — like the Internet, which is now dominant in the news or soon to be — it has its pluses and minuses, but each successive Presidency, for example, has gotten smarter and smarter about how to manipulate the media, manipulate the press, and use television to its advantage. Also, the trivialization of the news — and what I call the politicalization of news — now results in some news networks just being partisan political propaganda outlets.
Stewart: Really?? Now, I had not noticed that. I don’t particularly follow the 24-hour news networks, but I understand that they’re all above board.... Does it — for you — this idea of “liberal bias” and the idea, you know — in your experience, haven’t most journalists, haven’t their politics been somewhat more liberal?
Rather: No, it hasn’t been my experience.
Stewart: Oh, it hasn’t been your experience.
Rather: No, it has not been my experience.
Rather: Most journalists I grew up with, most journalists I have worked with and practiced with, were trying to be honest brokers of information.
Rather: Now, what will sometimes get you a reputation as a liberal, journalists generally formed an apprenticeship covering the police beat at midnight, after midnight on a Saturday night, the charity hospital. Journalists, the best of them, do see a Dickensian side of society that most people don’t see, so when they try to call attention to that, people who don’t like it say, “Oh, you’re a liberal!” but it has not been my experience. I know what is widely believed, that CBS, NBC, ABC — chock full of liberals: not true. What it’s chock full of is people wanting to give honest news, straightforward news, and voted both ways in many elections. I’m not saying that nobody in the newsroom was liberal, any more than I’m saying anybody conservative. Frequently what happened, people who describe themselves as conservatives want to say, “I worked at CBS News and you know, almost everybody there was liberal.” What they really mean is, not everybody there agreed with them all the time. This is a sham, it’s a camouflage for —
Stewart: It seems to have been very effective — that “working the refs” — that’s what I would say: it’s really worked —
Rather: It has worked.
Stewart: — and people are now very afraid to appear in any way as though they’re taking a position on anything.
Rather: Well, that’s true, and that’s why I say that journalism — American journalism — in some ways has lost its guts, or it needs a spine transplant. I do not except myself from this group; I made my mistakes along this line, but there is a price to pay — and I’m not excusing, but if you stand up and ask a really tough question now, challenge, say, a President or a Vice President, you know there’s going to be a price to be paid for that, and so often, it is, “You know what, I’ll just get in the middle, move with the mass, I’ve got house payments....”
Stewart: But, back in the day, Jack Anderson — Nixon tried to poison him, or at least had a plan to poison him.
Rather: Well, the more recent book indicates that the President actually had a plan to kill Jack Anderson at one time; things got that bad. Not made up, these are facts — about which a lot of people want to have amnesia, but, you know, covering the Civil Rights campaign, covering Watergate, covering the Vietnam War, frequently what happens is those in power, whether they be Republican or Democrat, conservative or liberal, want to say, “Everything is beautiful!”
Rather: Things down south are not that bad, they were saying in 1961 and ’62, but we learn now, things were every bit as bad as they were conveyed on television, and that’s now the accepted wisdom. This happens time after time because we have amnesia about the things that are unpleasant.
Stewart: It’s as though power corrupts.
Rather: Oh, there’s a bulletin!
Stewart: Well, here’s why you gotta get this book, for no reason than it has the best Dan Rather-ism in it that I’ve ever read. I’m reading through this thing, and you describe something as “a nit on a gnat’s nut.” And when I read that, I was like, “I gotta buy two of these!” Rather Outspoken is on the bookshelves now. Thank you so much for being here.
Rather: Thank you, Jon.
Stewart: Really appreciate it.