“What I think these experiences with Facebook are teaching me is that there is a real thirst, a hunger, a lust—whatever verb you want to use—out there for somebody, anybody, who takes a stand back and gets what we used to call in television the wide shot of the campaign.”
Dan Rather isn’t just somebody or anybody, though, and I suspect that matters to people. The popularity of his recent post may have as much to do with Rather himself, and the era of journalism he represents, as it does with the eloquence of what he wrote. Put it this way: On a spectrum that runs from Edward R. Murrow to Chris Matthews, Rather is far closer to the Murrow side of things. (When I admitted that I have little patience for watching TV news anymore, because I often feel as though I’m being shouted at, Rather laughed: “You feel you’re being shouted out because you are being shouted at! Don’t get me started.”)
To anyone who still pretends this is a normal election of Republican against Democrat, history is watching. And I suspect its verdict will be harsh. Many have tried to do a side-shuffle and issue statements saying they strongly disagree with his rhetoric but still support the candidate. That is becoming woefully insufficient. The rhetoric is the candidate. This cannot be treated as just another outrageous moment in the campaign.
Rather’s written commentary is shared widely, but he has also experimented with Facebook Live—a way of broadcasting in real time to the social platform, and a natural fit for a man who has spent so much of his career in front of a camera. As it happened, at the time of our conversation Wednesday evening, at least two news organizations had fired up Facebook Live feeds to cover a bizarre event unfolding at Trump Tower in Manhattan. A man, using a contraption made of suction cups, was trying to scale the midtown building.
The decision to broadcast such a stunt live seemed, to me, potentially problematic. (The tricky ethics around live broadcasts of this nature are nothing new: In television news, even with the possibility of a delayed feed, there have been many broadcast decisions of this nature that have ended poorly.) I wanted to know: Would Rather, were he in charge of a newsroom today, make the call to put what was happening at Trump Tower on Facebook Live?
“I think the answer’s probably ‘yes,’” Rather said. “The pressures are such now—to be fast, to be first, to be quick off the mark—that the old journalism adage of, ‘You trust your mother, but you cut the cards,’ it just can’t hold under today’s pressures. There’s a deadline every nanosecond, and that has really changed the whole base of journalism, including the journalism I do.”
The new journalism—or is it the new new new journalism?—presents its challenges, but Rather is mostly optimistic about how his industry is transforming. He plans never to retire. “I’m excited about it because the potential is almost unlimited,” he said. “I don’t want to preach about it, but certainly it causes me to re-dedicate myself to do quality journalism. I don’t profess to understand the Facebook phenomenon. I don’t understand it. I’m constantly in awe of the potential of it. We’re no longer in the early stages of the digital revolution, but who knows what’s ahead.”