Next week, legendary newsman Dan Rather will appear at Powell Hall as part of Maryville University’s St. Louis Speakers Series. The former CBS anchor and current host of Dan Rather Reports once said, I can’t remember a time when I didn’t want to be a reporter. Indeed, from the Kennedy assassination, the 1968 Democratic National Convention and Watergate to the Challenger disaster and the invasion of Iraq, Rather has been bringing us the news for more than 60 years. We can’t imagine a time when he wasn’t a reporter.
What’s new for you these days?
I am the anchor and managing editor of Dan Rather Reports, a one-hour weekly news program on AXS TV. We do two kinds of things: deep-digging investigative reports and—we hope—quality international reporting. We also do ‘big’ interviews with selected people who will interest the audience.
What do you mean by ‘big’ interviews?
It relates to how one is relevant. We’re interested in talking to people who have led interesting lives—the good talkers, those who are well-known people in pop culture and entertainment but are not always easy to get. I’d love to do Prince or Eminem—we’re going to keep trying.
Any recent interview in particular that you thoroughly enjoyed?
That’s like asking me to choose one of my children! But Merle Haggard—someone whose music I’ve listened to since the 1960s—I especially enjoyed. He was a nice surprise, really articulate and quite eloquent.
When I was in journalism school, you, along with Tom Brokaw and the late Peter Jennings, dominated network news. And when I interviewed Mr. Brokaw two years ago about the three of you leaving the anchor desk at about the same time, he said, In many ways, we had the best of times, but the times were changing. How competitive was it for you personally, and what did you take away from those years?
It was very competitive. Let’s face it, in any endeavor, in terms of sports, business and journalism, the level of competition is fierce, to say the least. Each of us came to the anchor desk in the early ‘80s and worked into the first decade of the 21st century. When we first came on, we all wanted to dominate. We were fierce competitors and had grudging respect for each other, then it became real respect. Tom and Peter were honorable competitors—they wanted to win, but there were things they did not do to win, and I came to appreciate that. Through the years, when one of us got into trouble or came under attack, whether justifiable or not, we would come to each other’s defense. We became friends—our wives are better friends than we are—but Tom and I have been friends for more than 40 years now.
As a Washington observer for decades, what is most different about the way Washington works these days versus the way it worked then?
The biggest difference is the fierce, unyielding, relentless partisanship on both sides of the aisle. So often these days it’s not what’s good for the country, it’s what’s good for the party. There’s always been some of that; but now, for each and every issue, it’s party first instead of country first. There’s a play in New York now called, All the Way, about LBJ. And what the play brings to the fore is that he couldn’t have gotten things passed without the help of the representatives. The Civil Rights legislation, for instance—Congress had agreed it was good for the country. The other difference is on foreign policy. There was a time not too long ago that when it came to some foreign policy issue, the tendency was to support the president. It’s not the case these days…
What do you think is most troubling about what’s happening in Washington now?
The degree of which special-interest money has bought Washington—and in many ways, owns it. Just how much special-interest money influences legislation? The American people don’t understand the depths of it. Over the last 30 to 40 years and increasingly so, the biggest thing in Washington to understand is how big money buys its way in.
What about global news, what’s most noteworthy to you?
The rise of China and its bid to become an economic and military superpower—it’s one of the great stories of the 21st century. The exploration of space deeper and deeper into the cosmos also remains of the great stories.
What is your viewpoint about where journalism is headed in this day and age of social networking, instant messaging, smart phones, drones, etc?
What a time! I’m an optimist by experience and by nature, but journalism has its problems. With the speed of which the Internet is changing, we’re in a difficult period right now. As we shift to the Internet age, there’s a lack of ‘pickaxe journalism,’ the deep-digging, investigative reporting—and it’s creating some problems.