In a fireside chat at HIMSS17, journalism luminary Dan Rather discussed key leadership qualities and gave his thoughts on the current relationship between the national media and the Trump administration.
Rather, the former news anchor for CBS Evening News for more than 20 years, and current managing editor and anchor for the television news magazine Dan Rather Reports, sat down with HIMSS President and CEO H. Stephen Lieber for nearly 40 minutes in front of a packed room of conference attendees. The conversation at HIMSS17 was sponsored by HX360 Executive Engagement.
Rather spoke first about his career as a journalist, noting that after he took over from Walter Cronkite as anchor of CBS Evening News in the early 1980s, an unexpected terrific first few years in television ratings—shortly after CBS corporate leadership told him to expect a period of failure following the great Cronkite—led to him developing a big ego. But a few personal lessons in life taught Rather to stay grateful, be modest and merciful, and have humility and forgiveness, which can "take you very far and get you places."
Continuing with a very modest tone, Rather called himself "a reporter who got very lucky." He said, "I dreamed of being a journalist from the time I first remembered important to me. You know that I know I'm not an expert. I have traveled miles and seen things, but that doesn't make an expert."
Dan Rather and H. Stephen Lieber at HIMSS17
Lieber asked Rather about the ongoing relationship between the media and President Donald Trump's administration—which has become quite contentious—and also to make predictions for the future. Rather said while he feels he is good at reporting on what has happened, the record shows that when he talks about what's to come, "I am not great at foreseeing the future. He who lives by the crystal ball tends to eat lots of broken glass." He then commented, "Whether one likes our president or not, we have never been in this place before, as people or as a country. This is not only [abnormal], but unprecedented. I don't mean that critically, but analytically. Never before have we had a leader like this, never have we had a president who had zero experience in public service, [despite] his business experience."
Rather continued, "Clearly, what got him elected is mainly the hunger for change. There were so may Americans, some fearful or resentful, but also others, who just felt that the country needed change. I cannot recall a time in history when the appearance was extreme confusion, bordering on chaos, in just the first few weeks of a presidency. There is a lack of direction. This may turn out different as time goes on, but it's very hard to make case that it's not the most chaotic, or at least one of the most chaotic, starts [to a presidency] ever."
Rather noted that Trump might say that this feeling of chaos is all planned, since people want extreme change and chaos. But, Rather, reflected on one of Trump's principal advisors, Steve Bannon, who said years ago that he was an admirer of what [Russian revolutionary communist] Lenin brought to Russia. "First of all, if anybody in public life had said that 10 years ago, they’d run the risk of indictment. And also, look at what happened in Russia in the wake of the revolution. I think what Bannon was saying was, the country needs a shaking up from the top. If one was listening to the campaign, they’re doing what they said they would do. They’re looking for dramatic, immediate change, recognizing that the appearance of confusion might be to their advantage."
When asked about the media's role in covering the federal government, Rather said that the whole system of the press is intended to be adversarial. But, he pointed out a key subtly: "You notice that increasingly as the president's [administration] critiques the media, they say 'media' not 'press,' because the 1st Amendment calls it the press, not the media. This is done on purpose."
He continued, "No one in the past has accused the press of being the enemy of American people. Clearly, this is designed to muzzle the press. Being a watchdog is one of the most important responsibilities of an American journalist. A watchdog barks at things that are suspicious; you don't want an attack dog or a lapdog. But, we know from history what happens when leaders say a segment is the enemy of the people. This has potential to be dangerous."
Lieber then asked if the media has a role in this increasingly contentious relationship, to which Rather responded, "What has happened to the media in general is that the standards have diminished considerably. So often now, 'news' is viewed as entertainment. Far too often, the very large international conglomerates have gotten bigger with media consolidation, and the sense of news as a public service has almost disappeared. There always been those who say they're in business to make money, but we also see news as a public responsibility with trust. Now, is the only goal to make profit? This has resulted in what I call the corporatization and politicalization of the news."
To Rather, an example of "a legitimate news operation" with public service in mind, is doing a story in Afghanistan that involves the journalist physically going there, walking around and coming back with the story. But, he said, "If the focus is how to make the most money, it's easier and cheaper to have four people in a room shouting about Afghanistan. And when that happens, none of the four people have been there. So we do have a responsibility for what's happened out there. But I am starting to see the press catch their breath, ask tougher questions and do more investigative reporting. But that will only go so far; the real decisions are made above [reporters]."
Whats's more, Rather noted that the pattern of modern presidencies is that a new president usually gets tested, or probed, by one or more foreign powers. "And already, some combination of Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea have already made little probes, tests: North Korea with a new long-range missile; Iran with a missile test; and Russia with (reneging) on a treaty. So I think you can see the tests on the international stage. If you believe as I do, and what presidents believe, the first order of business is to protect the people. He will be tested going forward, and how he responds to that will be critical." Rather further asked, "Can he hold his own party behind him? Republicans from his own party indicated they couldn't get behind his executive order that he put out on immigration. I do find that a lot of people are afraid. Americans are far from perfect, but being afraid is not symbolic of American character. So whatever happens with this administration, we will get through this. It might be a long night or a nightmare, but we will get through it."