CBS Evening News anchor and Managing Editor Dan Rather said America was “asleep” during the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks at a nationally-televised interview with veteran broadcaster Marvin Kalb Tuesday night.
The GW-sponsored episode of “The Kalb Report” held at the National Press Club was packed with students, administrators and members of the press who raised questions about coverage of the recent tragedies.
Kalb began by “cutting to the chase,” reminding Rather of his recent quotation that America “got sucker-punched.” Rather said the United States received a very clear warning with the first World Trade Center attack in the early ’90s.
“Despite that warning, we went to sleep,” Rather said.
Rather said Americans believe in accountability, and journalists are equally responsible for ignoring the warnings.
“I do not except myself from this criticism,” he said. “We allowed ourselves to be swept along.”
The media’s coverage of what was interesting and titillating came at the expense of covering what was important, he said. The trend, he said, reached tidal wave proportions in the mid-’80s and continued through the `90s. The press followed the belief that the public did not want coverage of national issues, following the mantra “dumb it down and sleaze it up,” Rather said.
Asked about indiscernible pictures and videophone reports of American military action in Afghanistan, Rather said information so far has been unreliable because of secrecy efforts of the military and government.
“I’m not certain the military realizes the press corps is much more internationalized, and the technology to cover the battlefields live is much better,” Rather said.
Rather said he would not report news if he knew it would put American lives in danger, regardless of whether other networks were using it. He said he would only rely on a top official’s request to not report the story and would check out the information first.
On the issue of the media’s recent display of patriotism, Rather said, “I don’t think you can be too patriotic.” He stressed that a patriotic journalist is skeptical and independent but not cynical.
“As a journalist, I don’t want to put a single military man or woman’s life in danger,” he said. “I would never want to give away information that would be beneficial to the enemy.”
Rather said he has received criticism for his statements that he will get in line and wear a uniform if President George W. Bush needs him. He recalled everyone in his hometown went to recruiting stations the Sunday after the Pearl Harbor attack.
“That’s burned in my spirit,” he said.
Kalb questioned Rather about his willingness to go to Afghanistan, a trip he made for “60 Minutes” 11 years ago.
“I always wanted to be a reporter/anchor and not an anchor/reporter. Did I want to go? You bet,” he said, referring to the present possibility of covering the war on terrorism from abroad.
He said he has no present plans to go, joking that it was hard enough for him to get his boss to agree to let him be at the Kalb Report, which drew applause from the audience.
Rather said he based his editorial decisions on experience.
“I’m a gut player; I listen to my gut,” Rather said. “The longer you’re in the craft, the better it becomes.”
In coverage covering situations like Afghanistan, Rather acknowledged there is “a deadline every nanosecond” and “the first things you hear are often wrong.”
Rather discussed the pressures of making money for the network, which is “like a boa constrictor on your news judgment.”
He offered a warning for students in the audience: “Fear rules every newsroom in the country.”
He told students the journalism business is a constant battle between editorial and business judgment.
“You fight the good fight, you do the best you can,” Rather said,” and you know what? Sometimes you win.”