Dan Rather Podcast from South by Southwest: "Journalism needs a spine transplant; it has lost its guts"
In this podcast by Dan Rather at this year's South by Southwest conference in Austin, Texas, Rather says today's journalism "needs a spine transplant. It has lost its guts" (see minute 42:30). I didn't realize how authentic Rather was as a journalist. He really is a dyed-in-the-wool, tried-and-true, 100%-committed journalist. He says information is central to making correct choices in a democracy. Journalists bring us information that allows society to make the right decisions.
He talked more about journalism than the Internet, but what he said was relevant to blogging and podcasting. Rather explained that some journalists tend to play soft to politicians, not asking the hard questions. Or if they do ask hard questions and receive evasive answers, they don't ask follow-up questions. Rather says even if you aren't the journalist who asked the question, if the politician avoids a direct answer, rather than asking your own question, you should call the politician on the non-response, saying, Sir, you did not answer her question.
Rather uses a dog metaphor for journalism: Journalists shouldn't be attack dogs, always going for the throat. Nor should they be lap dogs, asking only the questions that please their political masters. Journalists should be watchdogs, barking at whatever looks suspicious. Watchdogs don't attack everything, but they bark at suspicious noises or activity. They are watchful, and they don't hide their bark. We should be the same.
As for the Internet, Rather said it was a tremendous tool, and was mostly positive about it, but he felt the Internet did not hold anyone responsible for tearing down opponents or slamming enemies under anonymous covers. Anyone can begin a blog under a pseudonym, launch a nasty campaign, and there's no check to keep this information in its place or to verify the author.
Rather also said the Internet helps us see how events in other parts of the world affect us locally. We Americans often downplay the significance of events taking place in distant lands, dismissing bombings in Baghdad or turmoil elsewhere as irrelevant. Because the Internet brings together a global audience in closely interactive ways, it allows us to see how remote events affect us.
Rather also asked the interviewer if she thought the Internet was bringing us together or apart.
Overall this podcast really brought out the human side of Dan Rather. I immensely enjoyed it. It made me think about asking the hard questions in my blogs and podcast interviews. On the one hand, you don't want to offend the interviewees or make them feel uncomfortable or caught off-guard. On the other hand, if a point is unclear, unfounded, untrue, or simply without basis, a good interviewer should call the interviewee on it.
About Tom Johnson
I'm a technical writer based in the San Francisco Bay area. In this blog, I write about topics related to technical writing and communication — such as software documentation, API documentation, visual communication, information architecture, writing techniques, plain language, tech comm careers, and more. Check out simplifying complexity and API documentation for some deep dives into these topics. If you're a technical writer and want to keep on top of the latest trends in the field, be sure to subscribe to email updates. You can also learn more about me or contact me.