Blogging's not the enemy, says Dan Rather

The seasoned broadcast journalist talks to CNET about old media, new media and the future of journalism in the digital age.

AUSTIN, Texas--If any figure from the world of mainstream journalism could be forgiven for nursing a grudge toward new media, Dan Rather comes to mind.

The longtime news anchor had his career prematurely shortened after bloggers drew attention to an erroneous document used by CBS as the basis of a report on President Bush's National Guard service. CBS later disavowed the report, and Rather, who issued an on-air apology, was soon out the door.

But Rather has revived his career working with Internet entrepreneur Marc Cuban's HDNet. In a one-on-one with CNET at the South by Southwest multimedia festival here, this born-again cyberjournalist offered his views on how journalism is evolving in the digital era and the challenges he thinks the profession will face.

Q: Did you see blogging as a serious journalistic endeavor before the CBS dustup over President Bush's military record?
Rather: Some parts of it I did. As I've said many times, I think it's very easy to generalize about blogging, which is a big sphere, and growing bigger every day. But there were parts of it I considered to be serious. Anybody who blogs, who does real reporting, which is to say, make telephone calls, go interview people, go talk to people, in a spirit of independence...and (tries) to do journalism with integrity, I would consider a journalist.

Good journalism, great journalism, starts with owners who have guts.

Of course there are an increasing number of bloggers now who by any definition are reporters, or journalists. There are some others who in my opinion would fit into a gray area. They may do good reporting, but they mix in their own opinion, their own point of view, without clearly signifying the difference. Now that's not a kind of journalism that I practice. It's not one that I'm going to damn either.

We're talking about definition. In the first category, they're clearly reporters; the second category is gray. And there are some, as there are in TV and radio and newspapers, who claim to be journalists, who aren't by any reasonable definition doing that--for example, someone who's blogging as a political operative for a party, with a partisan point of view, and who doesn't clearly hang out their shingle. But it's a complicated picture. The point is it's grown exponentially over the years, and there are more in each of these categories.

How can newspapers adapt to new technology and business models?
Rather: I think there is a way. I think newspapers are struggling to find that way, and some have had more success than others. As we sit here today, some will survive as newspapers, which is to say they'll use newsprint, and they'll come out daily. I certainly can see the time when most, if not all, newspapers reach the point at which they say, "We're going to do the newspaper, but it's only going to be on the Internet, or on supplementary new technologies," like going to mobile telephones and that kind of thing--basically not doing it on newsprint.

I would guess that this would probably start with a newspaper that's in a clearly, heavily permeated high-technology community. I can see the day where a paper such as that says we're going to get out of the newsprint business. I think it's going to begin that way. But it all depends on whether and how quickly advertisers take to it.

What role can the Internet play in neutralizing the effect of media consolidation?
Rather: I think it can play a very important role. First of all, in holding people accountable. Sometimes in the guise of holding people accountable, some want to smear others' reputations. But I do believe that at least the potential for self-correction is already there on the Internet for those kinds of things. At its best, journalism on the Internet--including blogging--does some of the following, holds people to accountability. It says, "Wait a minute, this is what the governor says, or the mayor says, or the president says. But here are the facts, and by any reasonable analysis, this is the truth." It's speaking truth to power, but it's become almost a cliche, because it's a powerful thought, and it's an essential for journalism in a society such as ours, a constitutional democracy based on the principles of freedom and democracy, that you have a high degree of accountability, that you have a constant questioning of power.

I believe that news is that which people need to know, that someone somewhere doesn't want them to know. And all the rest is just advertising. Now insofar as the Internet can operate from that baseline and help inform citizens, I think its potential is unlimited. It's one of the things that excites me about the Internet.

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