On an uncomfortably cold winter night, with the mercury registering just 23 degrees, 100 people lined the hallways of the McAllister Fine Arts Center on the campus of San Antonio College for a public lecture by renowned CBS newsman Dan Rather.
In all, nearly 1,000 attendees filled the auditorium to hear Dan Rather’s speech, with overflow sent to the mezzanine level. The ratio of aspiring young journalists and students to older members of the San Antonio community was 1 to 4. Many guests in attendance said they feel as though he is a trusted friend and were eager to hear from him in person and pay their respects.
For students of journalism, he offered several key pieces of advice:
- “First, give yourself a head check.” Determine if it is something you feel you have to do, because it demands commitment. List ahead of time, what you will and won’t do.
- “Second,” he stressed, “learn to write. If we had spell check in 1954, I might still be a newspaper man.”
- For those who prefer to simply consume the products of journalism, he recommends exploring many sources of news. “Be conversive on the Internet…Ask yourself, ‘Who stands to gain from this point of view? Who do I believe is an honest broker of information?’
- “Demand integrity the media. Challenge yourself to take the news seriously. Get worked up about the news, and let the [station] owner know.” It is the public’s responsibility to demand accuracy and truth.
- And lastly, “Don’t let them scare you. Ask tough questions until they’ve been answered. Questioning authority may be the purest form of patriotism.”
During the lecture, listeners learned that like many men in the Depression era, Dan Rather’s father did not have formal schooling after 8th grade. But he said he recognized, at the early age of 5 or 6, the importance of the news. His father subscribed to many newspapers and they would surround his armchair “like ammo in a foxhole.” Sometimes his father would be reading an article and jump out of his chair yelling about something printed there, or someone’s butchery of truth. The newspaper would become a missile. His father’s passion impressed on him the importance of the news.
Another formative development in Rather’s love for journalism was his childhood bout with rheumatic fever, which left him bedridden. “The radio became my best friend,” he said. Through radio journalists like Edward R. Murrow, and his “This is London” broadcast, a young Rather became enamored with the “listener’s magic carpet.”
Rather obtained his first job in media as a young college student before the era of financial aid. Hired by KSAM radio in Huntsville, Texas, for 40 cents an hour, his passion for investigative journalism was ignited by a simple assignment for a house fire call. With a little sleuthing, he was able to uncover not only a crime of arson, but the fact it was set to disguise a murder committed by a prominent citizen. When he took the story to his boss, he was cautioned that by breaking the story, “Not everyone will love you or respect you…You’re gonna catch hell all the way around.” Rather reminisced how his boss then “conveniently left town for a couple of weeks.” Rather prefers to identify with “the press” over “the media,” a difference he describes as follows:
“Media is any news with a constructed mission at its core. Press is the raw material of democracy.”
Rather reminded the audience that the first amendment of the United States Constitution protects the freedom of the press, right in front with freedom of religion and freedom of speech. “Media is content,” Rather said. “It looks and sounds like news, but it entertains for a profit. The Press,” he declared, “ is the red beating heart of the people.”
In today’s world where “the idea of distance is an illusion,” Dan Rather reminds us that world events have repercussions that traverse the globe. Our ‘Great Recession’ is causing economic waves of unrest in China. Our troops are still in Afghanistan. Egypt is in turmoil.
Because of our principles of freedom and democracy, our nation’s journalists are, according to Rather, “on the razor’s edge of danger. We want to be true to ideals, but also to survive. And those two ideas may be irreconcilable.”