Interview with Dan Rather of CBS News

The Race for Ratings and Readers: How it Drives Mainstream News Coverage

RATHER: So ratings have always been very important, and we have to care about them, because our bosses care about them and because the people who pay for our coverage care about them -- our sponsors. But -- and this is the point -- they cannot become and we can't let them become -- the only standard by which we are measured, of what's your circulation. It's certainly one standard by which we are measured and perhaps, should be, but not the only one.

SMITH: Why do you think that happens? You've got the judgment. You've got a set of standards. How did that happen?

RATHER:Well, I'll tell you how it happens. But it's really important you understand this is not by way of making excuse. I don't have any excuses. I am not the vice president in charge of excuses here. I'm trying to help explain how it happens.
You're in this, you know, viciously competitive pit, where day to day, week to week, month to month, it's a matter of survival, that is, you know, to keep your program on the air, keep yourself on the air. And somebody says -- let's take the Gennifer Flowers case. When it first came up, you say, well, gosh, I don't have any stomach for doing that. They'll say, "Come on, Dan, you can't live back in the days of spats and the hominy wagon. These are the 1990's. These are the late '80's and early 1990's. Things have changed. And when this kind of story breaks, you've got to go with it." And the first day, even the second day, we said, nah, not for me. I mean, frankly, I don't care, and I don't think most viewers care. And then somebody came in and said, look at this. Last night one of our major competitors, they went with it, they went with it strong -- competitor "x." "Dan, you can't -- you know, you and the `Evening News' can't be off on another planet. You have to understand, competitor `x' ran with this for 20-30 minutes last night." And that bridges over from what you call the "sleaze press" into the mainstream. It's in the mainstream.

RATHER: Here's the point. The pressures builds. Because somebody else is doing it, you've got to do it. And too often, we succumb to that pressure. Too often I succumb to that pressure. You see it all the time in political coverage.

The Washington Press Corps vs. the Politicians

SMITH: Is there a difference between good, strong, skeptical, investigative journalism and "gotcha journalism?"

RATHER: Yes, there is. And you used a good word. I think the difference is the difference between skepticism and cynicism. Good reporting requires a certain degree of skepticism. Not only does it not require, but I don't think there's any place for true cynicism. That's one of the dividing lines. If you mean, and I think you do, the kind of "gotcha journalism" that says, "I've got you, Mr. Congressman, because somebody threatened your father with information about the intimate details of your father's private life" or something, that's the kind of "gotcha journalism" I think you're talking about. There's another kind that I don't call "gotcha journalism." And, you know, we're competitive. I like to break a story. I consider myself a story breaker. I love to break a good story. But I want it to be a good story. I want it to be a story worth breaking, not something cheap and sleazy.

The Press and Public Disillusionment with Government

SMITH: There are people, very thoughtful people, some within the press, who have analyzed the press and will tell you that the negative tone has increased and public skepticism about governmental institutions has gone down. And they say the way we handle the news has contributed to the steady erosion of public faith in public institutions.

RATHER: First of all, I think that's valid criticism. It's something that we struggle with constantly, and that is, trying to give context and perspective to what we do. It's very difficult in television, and that's not an excuse. I'm trying to be candid with you about what some of the difficulties are. Television is terrific at some things. It's the best at taking you there. I mean, we can take you to Bosnia. We can take you to the Moon. We're superb at taking you there. Television has difficulty with depth. It has difficulty with context and perspective. The late Eric Severeid once put it this way. The camera is like a flashlight. We can show you what's at the end of the flashlight beam wherever we point it at a given time, but what you don't see is what's at either side, above and below that flashlight beam. Now, my hope is with these pieces, which we put under the heading of "Reality Check" that over a period of time, there is fairness. I don't like the word "balance" as applied to journalistic work, because to me, that carries with it at least a connotation that you're going to, if you run 15 words about the Republican Party, then you've got to run 15 words about the Democratic Party. That's balance. But I think "fairness" is the word I prefer.
© 1996 Hedrick Smith Productions, Inc.
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