Former CBS News anchor Dan Rather called on President Barack Obama to form a White House commission to help save the press Tuesday night in an impassioned speech at the Aspen Institute.
“I personally encourage the president to establish a White House commission on public media,” the legendary newsman said.
Such a commission on media reform, Rather said, ought to make recommendations on saving journalism jobs and creating new business models to keep news organizations alive.
At stake, he argued, is the very survival of American democracy.
“A truly free and independent press is the red beating heart of democracy and freedom,” Rather said in an interview yesterday afternoon. “This is not something just for journalists to be concerned about, and the loss of jobs and the loss of newspapers, and the diminution of the American press’ traditional role of being the watchdog on power. This is something every citizen should be concerned about.”
Rather, who has been a working reporter for more than six decades and currently hosts “Dan Rather Reports” on HDNet, pointed out that there are precedents for such national commissions, which have been used to help other at-risk industries.
Corporate and political influence on newsrooms, along with the conflation of news and entertainment, has created what Rather called “the dumbing down and sleazing up of what we see on the news.”
It has also thinned the amount of investigative and international journalism. The latter loss of correspondents covering America’s two foreign wars, Rather opined, is both a critical detriment to the nation and a disservice to our troops.
Tears welled in the lifelong reporter’s eyes as he discussed the dwindling number of war correspondents.
“I feel particularly strong about coverage of the wars,” he said, noting that covering the war in Afghanistan is his top priority on his HDNet program. “No apologies, both as a journalist and as a citizen I just can’t stand to leave those guys out there, fighting, dying, bleeding, getting torn up and say, ‘Look, it’s page 14 news.’ Or ‘Sorry, not on tonight’s newscast.’ It’s an example of the problem, that and not having the watchdogs.”
The free press, as established by the First Amendment to the Constitution, ought to operate as a public trust, not solely as a money-making endeavor, Rather argued, and it’s time the government make an effort to ensure the survival of the free press. If not the government, he suggested, then an organization like the Carnegie Foundation should take it on. Without action, he predicted, America will lose its independent media.
“If we do nothing more than stand back and hope that innovation alone will solve this crisis,” he said, “then our best-trained journalists will lose their jobs.”