Dan Rather on Freedom of the Press

We’ve been up for just under 20 days and passed 200 “all time views” yesterday apparently spanning 5 countries. In the process, it’s given some of us a chance to look more deeply into the complexities of the the issues we address, and hopefully do our own small part in deepening the conversation that is taking place around safety, justice and environmental issues. It’s been dishearteningly difficult to find critical information on these issues from mainstream news sources. So, in celebration of these first 200 views, and in honor of memorial weekend and the things we are supposedly risking people’s lives to protect, here are some excerpts from Dan Rather’s speech upon acceptance of the Burton Benjamin Memorial Award from the Committee to Protect Journalists on November 22nd 2011.

And, We’ve Gotten Used to It

“One of Bud Benjamin’s dreams was to expand the CBS Evening News to a full hour. And Bud wasn’t thinking of filling it with helicopter shots, celebrity gossip, and punditry. He imagined an entire hour brimming with investigative reporting, exposés and dispatches from around the world.

It was a different time in journalism.  A time when professional duty was patriotic and the freedom of the press motivated and inspired newsrooms. I know it is hard to believe–but it’s true–newsrooms were not supposed to turn a profit. Frankly, news was considered an acceptable loss leader on the balance sheet, a brand builder and most of all a public service.To keep our FCC license and the public trust, we had to use the public’s airwaves in the public interest some of the time.

Yes, that’s a whole lot of “public.”

But that’s the way it was. It’s the way it should be again. Today, how we look and how we “present” information has become far more important than how we gather it. It’s upside down and backwards. And the worst part is…we have gotten used to it.”

Giving a nod to the then nascent Occupy…

“But now, we see our fellow citizens taking to the streets. And, that my friends, is our cue to get back to work…. As the People of our nation begin rising up, they expect the business of news to be about inquiry and accountability. And, luckily for us, we can still do that…but, it will not often be within the confines of big corporate media.

As you know, we are living in an age when big money owns everything…including the news. That cash bought a lot of silence for a long time. Enough time for unchecked power to get this country tangled into messes all around the world. We all know that money talks. But, so do the people.”

Then drawing his own lines in the sand…

“We have been so afraid; so hell bent on destroying enemies…both real and imagined…both foreign and domestic…we have hurt ourselves, and we have diminished out freedom and damaged our democracy. You are probably asking yourself now what you should do. There are so many wrongs to make right, it is going to get messier before it gets better.

We have to begin asking the hard questions once again.

We have to demand and earn back the respect that gave us the right to ask them.

We must protect whistleblowers by using our megaphones to make their risky admissions even louder.

We must demand access to all those taking risks to challenge power.

We must refuse to simply read press releases and rely on official sources.

And we must begin to enforce our own professional code of ethics. Refuse to compromise. Going along to get along is getting us nowhere. Tonight, if I can convince you of anything, it is to buck the current system. Remember anew that you are a public servant and your business is protecting the public from harm. Even if those doing harm also pay your salary. To once again quote Ed Murrow:

there is a great and perhaps decisive battle to be fought against ignorance, intolerance and indifference…this weapon of television could be useful.

And wouldn’t it be great if our country could get used to that.

To read Rather’s full speech click here.

For those who aren’t familiar with the awards namesake, here is a 1986 quote from Burton Benjamin, producer and former vice president and director of CBS News:

The news directors of some larger local stations are saying: Just give us the money and we can do without the network news. Some of the dreams that many of us in the business used to have – such as an hour newscast – are dead. … The hour documentary is comatose, the instant special is rarely seen, except in times of great crisis. The new corporate owners of the networks have invoked a kind of austerity that has hit the news divisions especially hard.

It is important to remember that there was a time in the world of journalism when these people were the establishment figures, and that it was not all that long ago.