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Dan Rather: The Press ‘Can’t Back Up or Back Down’ to Trump Administration

Variety logo Variety 1/17/2017 James Rainey

It has been more than a decade since Dan Rather left CBS News, following a furor over the network’s reports on President George W. Bush’s service when he was a young officer in the Texas Air National Guard.

Rather, now 85, has since hosted “The Big Interview” on Mark Cuban’s AXS TV and made appearances on many other cable news shows. Newly energized, he has called on the media to not back down from its duties in the face of one of the most overtly hostile incoming presidents in history.

Now, often as not, it’s on Facebook that Rather metes out his critiques. After the president-elect’s combative press conference last week, the newsman wrote about the “dangerous mixture of big ego and thin skin” that he believes threaten to turn Donald Trump into “President Asterisk.”

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“If you, Mr. Trump, fail to take the Russian threat seriously, if you do not disentangle yourself from your business interests, if you promote corrupt or conflicted advisers and cabinet members, if you fail to understand the gravity of the foreign policy crisis you face, if you deprive millions of health care without an alternative, if you fail to act on the global threat of climate change, if you pit Americans against each other by race, gender, and religion, if you undermine science and reason … there will be an asterisk next to your name,” Rather wrote.

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Network TV’s longest-serving anchor — he put in 24 years at CBS before moving full-time to “60 Minutes” in 2005 — covered his first presidential race in 1952. He spoke with Variety about reporting on the new president.

What’s your biggest question for Trump?

We have never had an election where a foreign power made as extensive an effort as the Russians apparently made here, nor have we had a period in which a foreign power was as successful as the Russians appeared to be in this campaign. What’s needed here is a real, vigorous investigation, and it needs to be non-partisan, because this deals with the very vital essence of the country. Coming out of the 2016 election, I consider that to be job No. 1: Let’s find out what did and didn’t happen with the Russians.

What else would you ask Trump?

I would like to go down the list of things he said during his campaign and ask if he was prepared to apologize for them, for what he said about John McCain and the Khan family and the reporter who had a physical disability. Is he prepared to apologize for any of that? And if not, why not?

Do you still want to see his tax returns?

Yes, and I’d like to ask him if he’s bothered in the slightest that a lot of hard-working Americans pay their taxes and that, from all indications, he did not pay any taxes for many years.

“We can’t back up or back down.”
Dan Rather

Yet millions of Americans supported Trump. Do the media need to do more to learn what animated these people?

It’s absolutely essential. Coverage of middle America — what some people call “the flyover states” — needs to increase. But that comes up against the hard reality that the old business model of journalism is shrinking or gone, and the new business model has not yet arrived. So at the very time we need more on-the-ground reporting, there are fewer reporters to do it.

How did we get to this place, where views of the “mainstream media” are so negative?

Part of how we got here was losing sight of — and allowing to be diminished — the sense of journalism as a public service. …Everything got to be about money.

You’ve said there is a campaign to vilify news people and that journalists need to stand up for higher ideals. And you’ve said you yourself didn’t always do as much as you could.

I have been guilty, at times, in chasing ratings, chasing demographics, and, in internet terms, chasing hits or shares.… I have not always had the guts I should have had to ask the tough question. I have not done as much deep-drilling investigative reporting as I would have liked to have to done.

What needs to happen now?

I think what’s needed now is a re-dedication to the idea that the press, the media, has a special responsibility as part of the checks and balances in our system. We can’t back up or back down or turn around. We can’t get distracted or lose focus or, for that matter, deal in any kind of cowardice, small or large.

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