A little over a year ago, Dan Rather had something he wanted to say about Donald Trump.
Friends told him to keep it quick if he was going to do it on Facebook. Two paragraphs or less, or people will run away and never come back.
These things weren’t going to fit into two paragraphs.
“I just said, What the hell. I want to be myself,” said Rather. “I want to do the kind of journalism I was trained to do in the tradition I grew up—the Murrow tradition, the CBS tradition.”
Woe betide he who becomes famous for his Facebook page, save for Dan Rather, who may be the only sane man writing about politics among the 1.7 billion people on the social network.
“I thought, ‘If I’m to have any voice at all in this, I’m gonna have to find a new way to do it,’” Rather said, calling from his Manhattan office. “Nobody’s gonna hire me to anchor Election Night and nor should they. I hope I can be forgiven for saying I’d like to be part of the conversation.”
The former CBS Evening News anchor will be 85 on Halloween, and he’s just found his fourth journalism life on his own Facebook page, of all places. He was on the air when John F. Kennedy was shot, when the Twin Towers fell, and when he got punched in the gut at a convention about a half-century ago.
Now he’s on his own Facebook page, where he’s urging reporters and citizens not to let Trump become normalized—and Rather might be reaching more people than he ever has before.
There isn’t a meme to be found. Just 500-word polemics that read like old-timey newspaper columns from a man who has seen the future and wants to make sure we know just what we’re getting ourselves into.
“Enough is enough. It is a reality that every reporter must come to grips with. Trump is not a normal candidate. This is not a normal election,” he wrote last month.
Hundreds of thousands of people have shared these posts. Millions more have read them. Nobody seems to know why they’re catching fire, and Rather is not interested in precisely why.
But here’s one good reason: Each post is filled with equal parts foreboding and hope. That same entry ends like this: “I am optimistic the trance is being broken. Fear not the internet trolls. Fear instead the judgment of history.”
And that’s what you hear from Rather now, a relentless optimism mixed with a warning about the next 15 days.
“I worry very little about what my legacy would be, but I do worry about the direction of the country,” he said. “I know that might strike people as corny. This is a singular time in deciding where we’re gonna go.”
In our discussion, Rather talked about a corporate media he believes has “become too risk-averse” to cut off the Trump that fed them. (“They’re trying to promote their own content.”) But he also sees exponential opportunity for journalism in the social web he has taken over by mistake.
“We need to heal and nurture hope as a country. Social media can be a big part of that,” he said. “The election’s going to end at some point, and that is the moment, once it ends, that we’re really going to need a lot of smart, caring voices about the country—voices of healing and hope.”
Rather believes he can be just that—especially in a world that could be amplifying hate a lot less in just a few weeks.
Here’s his conversation with The Daily Beast about Trump, the state of journalism, and his new life as the only good newsman on Facebook:
It started early summer of last year. I’ve been covering presidential campaigns a long time. I’ll be 85 years old on Halloween. I thought, If I’m to have any voice at all in this, I’m gonna have to find a new way to do it. Nobody’s gonna hire me to anchor Election Night and nor should they. I hope I can be forgiven for saying I’d like to be part of the conversation. I’d like to bring whatever talent I have to bear on this presidential campaign.
I did say [in one of the Facebook posts]: This one is going to be one for the history books. I have no idea why [the columns] have caught on to the extent that it has. I’m grateful that they’ve reached the audience that they’ve reached. And, in a way, the people who read and comment on these stories have created a community of their own. I understand the word “humbled” is not necessarily associated with TV news anchors, especially this one. But when I say that, it’s genuine.
When Trump announced his candidacy, in the early summer of last year, I did say to myself—and I wrote something along the lines of—Don’t underestimate this guy. At that same time, I said to myself, this is gonna be a great story.
Look, I have a lot of faults—a lot of wounds self-inflicted and still open. If I’m anything, I’m a story hunter, breaker, teller. I did say to myself when Trump announced, this is gonna be a hell of a story. For once, I’ve been right.
I’m still trying to find my way. This is a—name some earlier explorer—da Gama must’ve had this feeling. I recognize I’m operating in a whole new journalistic cosmos. I don’t seek to mislead anybody. I don’t understand much of what’s going on myself. I’m just pleased. This has been totally unexpected. It’s a very difficult time and I’m thankful [I’m] reaching some of the people who want to read it.
Frankly, I’m stunned by the reach of these Facebook posts. Not every one (of the posts) breaks through to the high numbers. Yet a surprising amount of the time, they are at least viewed by astounding numbers of people.
If one wants to practice journalism going forward, you’ve gotta be involved on the internet. It’s imperative. Among the things that just continually surprise and stun me is how quickly what you write ricochets around the internet. This is the future.
The second thing is how much of a conversation this turns out to be. Among the things we like about it is that it’s a conversation—people talk to you—and it’s not always complimentary. What’s been built here is a community of people who indicated that they have some trust that I will try to talk at least sanely about what’s going on.
I don’t take myself seriously, but I do take my work seriously. When people trust you, that’s a high responsibility. And one wants to be true to that responsibility. I felt this way when I did CBS Evening News and feel it now. When people trust me, I take it seriously and I try to respond in kind.
It’s been a whole educational experience for me. I feel like I’m in a constant graduate school. Different forms of communication can have different power. This allows people to feel like they belong to a community.
I was advised by people with a whole lot more experience than me in this area. They said, “Dan, you’ve gotta write short. If you write more than two paragraphs, you’re gonna lose.” The kinds of things I want to do can’t be said in under two paragraphs. I just said, What the hell. I want to be myself. I want to do the kind of journalism I was trained to do in the tradition I grew up—the Murrow tradition, the CBS tradition.
As you know I started in print, then radio, then television, then the internet. Social media is very special. It’s not just a one-way street. It’s about building a community where people can respond. We can talk to each other.
I do think, and I’m loath to criticize colleagues, but corporate media has become too risk-averse. These companies have a lot of interests to protect—corporate, international conglomerates, lawyers, and so forth. More importantly, they’re trying to promote their own content. I don’t have that problem in my later years. I’m not owned by anyone. I don’t have to kiss up to everyone.
I worry very little about what my legacy would be, but I do worry about the direction of the country. I know that might strike people as corny. And I am really worried about the direction of the country. This is a singular time in deciding where we’re gonna go. I do sometimes ask myself, “What would Edward R. Murrow have done?” I’m willing to bet heavily he would’ve been there on Facebook early.
At another time in my life, I would’ve done what you described as “fall in line and do what everybody else is doing.” But—perhaps this is too self serving—I’ve never really run with the herd. Approaching this, I need to be myself. I need to do what I want to do. If somebody reads it, that’s OK.
It did go through my mind that I spent a good deal of my life chasing ratings. I understand very well the pressure that that brings. I’m just not going to go there. It’s not going to be a matter of how many views you get. I’m not gonna play that game. I played it as well as I could. I’m just not gonna do that.
My friend said, “You can keep up every day with how many people are reading it.” Frankly, I don’t give a damn. There’s a freedom in adopting that attitude. People who work in traditional media—they don’t have an option. I’m just at a different stage in my life now.
I do like to keep learning. I have this company of my own now where we try to do journalism that matters. I’ve had to learn about the medium, but I have been impressed by how old-school it really is.
There is power in the written word—even long posts. I was told in the beginning that’s not true. They said write it quickly, and for God’s sake don’t make it long. But there is still power in the written word. It shows how really hungry people are for some context and perspective. I’m not a definitive voice, but I have one that I hope is thought provoking.
You learn, if you’re a first-rate journalism pro, to try to emphasize calm when chaos, hysterical, or quick judgments are the norm. I think some of that is experience. I’ve been at it a long time. I do, sometimes in tight corners, even in dangerous places just that. It’s one of those things you learn along the road.
My goal with this is not to convince anybody of any political persuasion. What I’m really hoping I’m doing is encouraging people to think—and I think it’s happening far more than I ever would’ve imagined. A lot of journalistic operations in print and online have begun slugging off their sleepwalking and started calling truth and lies as they see it. And not a moment too soon. It’s maybe even too late. What I worry about is moving into the post-truth era of American politics. God help us if we’ve moved into such an era.
I do think that there is a wide audience that worries about what I’ve mentioned before: If we’ve moved into an era where facts no longer matter, we’re really in a wilderness from which we’ll never emerge. I don’t think about this personally, there’s a hankering for—a longing for—a time when the truth does matter, when the facts do count.
I mentioned Edward R. Murrow—my wife tells me not to do that too much because it’s been such a long time—but Murrow basically invented electronic journalism, and he did so with the creed that the journalist’s job is to get as close to the truth as is humanly possible, and to be an honest broker of true things.
Can anybody in journalism step back from the excitement of the moment and put this in a wider perspective and add some context and prove it to be thought provoking? If you want to call it old-school, traditional journalism, you can call it that. There’s a widespread thought that that’s yesterday and it won’t work. And that’s just flat wrong.
Our little effort here on Facebook shows that there is that hunger out there—that we expect journalists to seek out the truth and post truth as they can. We want them to be fair, but also want them to be accurate. This is what we depended on them doing.
If my car engine has trouble, I want an experienced mechanic. If I’m gonna have surgery, I want a physician to operate on me. When it comes to news, reporting the news, I want somebody who’s experienced and dedicated to pull no punches, play no favorites, tell me what’s going on, and try to connect the dots. When it comes to journalism, it’s something I care about.
We need to heal and nurture hope as a country. Social media can be a big part of that. It can be a much bigger part of it than it’s been up to now. The election will soon be over. The election’s going to end at some point, and that is the moment, once it ends, that we’re really going to need a lot of smart, caring voices about the country—voices of healing and hope.
Several somebodies linked to the campaign said our better angels will soon take over. Most of this campaign, the better angels have been on a long lunch break. My hope is they will return. I have no illusions: This might be an especially difficult time for this country. I hope there will people in elected and appointed office who have the interests of regular people at heart.
People like politics. But they also like uplifting stories that don’t just make them feel good, but encourage them to do something decent themselves—uplifting stories about how good-hearted and generous Americans are. That’s what most Americans are, good of heart. One of the things Facebook has taught me is that there’s an insatiable appetite for politics. There’s also an appetite for the good-heartedness that Americans have—and Americans like to have that noted.
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