When Dan Rather spoke, America listened.
In the twilight decades of the 20th century, there were only so many ways to get the news. The CBS Evening News, which Rather anchored for 24 years, was one of the major ones. Along with Tom Brokaw at NBC and Peter Jennings at ABC, Rather was among the “big three” television newsmen of a generation.
Now, more than a decade after he left his perch and at 84 years old, Rather has returned to broadcasting—only this time, on Facebook.
In recent months, Rather’s frequent written commentaries about the U.S. presidential election have ricocheted around the web, and in some cases gathered an enormous amount of attention. On Tuesday, after Donald Trump suggested at a campaign rally that “Second Amendment people” could act against Hillary Clinton, Rather posted a short essay on his Facebook page, imploring people to contemplate the seriousness of Trump’s comments: “This is no longer about policy, civility, decency or even temperament. This is a direct threat of violence against a political rival.”
Within hours, Rather’s post had been shared hundreds of thousands of times. By the next day, Rather told me, the post had reached an audience of some 20 million people. (Because he published it to a public page, rather than an individual profile, he’s able to see metrics about traffic to his posts that aren’t otherwise available. His Facebook page is listed under his name as part of his work with News and Guts, a production company he started in 2006.)
“To find oneself speaking, metaphorically at least, to almost 20 million people—this last 24 hours has been the closest thing I have felt to the heyday of the CBS Evening News,” he said. “Particularly given the startling reaction to this most recent post, which I will tell you staggers me—frankly, I feel like I’ve been transported to very deep outer space.”
Rather also feels like he’s experienced the future of journalism firsthand, he says. Facebook is in many ways deeply problematic for journalism’s business model. It exerts enormous influence on the economics of the news industry, commands a monstrous portion of online advertising revenue, and has upended the distribution of the news itself. But if the medium is the message, as the old McLuhanian adage goes, surely the story is to some extent the audience. Or to paraphrase Rather, the best reporting in the world isn’t worth a damn unless people actually see it. Right now, Facebook is where the people are.
“I’ve gone through the print era, the radio era, the television era,” he said. “I’ve become totally, completely convinced that the potential here is to reach a truly mass audience—and, by the way, a mass international audience. Facebook and its offsprings are the future. It is going to be the way for journalists to reach an audience that matters.”
Of course not everything published to Facebook is instantly broadcast to tens of millions of people worldwide. Rather has a significant following already, and his comments on Trump clearly resonated with people.
“What I think these experiences with Facebook are teaching me is that there is a real thirst, a hunger, a lust—whatever verb you want to use—out there for somebody, anybody, who takes a stand back and gets what we used to call in television the wide shot of the campaign.”
Dan Rather isn’t just somebody or anybody, though, and I suspect that matters to people. The popularity of his recent post may have as much to do with Rather himself, and the era of journalism he represents, as it does with the eloquence of what he wrote. Put it this way: On a spectrum that runs from Edward R. Murrow to Chris Matthews, Rather is far closer to the Murrow side of things. (When I admitted that I have little patience for watching TV news anymore, because I often feel as though I’m being shouted at, Rather laughed: “You feel you’re being shouted out because you are being shouted at! Don’t get me started.”)
Rather has plenty of critics, too, especially among conservatives who have long complained of what they perceived to be a liberal bias. Those sorts of complaints, which feature prominently in reactions to his Facebook posts, intensified after Rather’s involvement with a botched 2004 story about George W. Bush’s military record, a controversy that resulted in several top journalists being fired.
Rather still watches television news “all the time,” he says, but is reluctant to talk about what he watches most, or who he thinks is doing the best job, for fear of leaving out someone. The one name he mentioned was Jake Tapper, the CNN correspondent. Rather praised him for not only asking Trump tough questions but “following up, boring in” until Trump either answered the question or made it explicitly clear he wasn’t going to. “I tip my Stetson to him for that,” Rather said.
More broadly, Rather echoed a concern that has come up among many journalists trying to cover a presidential election that is unlike anything they’ve experienced in American political reporting. For his part, Rather, who began covering presidential campaigns in 1952, called this year’s race the “craziest, wackiest, hardest to understand campaign” yet.
“I want to be objective, I want to be fair, but you have to point out these things that are so extraordinary that they fit the category of news, and news that matters,” Rather said. “I’ve struggled with myself about this for a life time, and I’ve been dedicated to try to be a plain ole pull-no-punches, hard-nose reporter. But when something so extraordinary happens to have a candidate talk—even in ambiguous terms—about gun violence against another candidate, you have to say, ‘Folks, this is unprecedented.’”
Here’s some of how he put it in his recent Facebook post:
To anyone who still pretends this is a normal election of Republican against Democrat, history is watching. And I suspect its verdict will be harsh. Many have tried to do a side-shuffle and issue statements saying they strongly disagree with his rhetoric but still support the candidate. That is becoming woefully insufficient. The rhetoric is the candidate. This cannot be treated as just another outrageous moment in the campaign.
Rather’s written commentary is shared widely, but he has also experimented with Facebook Live—a way of broadcasting in real time to the social platform, and a natural fit for a man who has spent so much of his career in front of a camera. As it happened, at the time of our conversation Wednesday evening, at least two news organizations had fired up Facebook Live feeds to cover a bizarre event unfolding at Trump Tower in Manhattan. A man, using a contraption made of suction cups, was trying to scale the midtown building.
The decision to broadcast such a stunt live seemed, to me, potentially problematic. (The tricky ethics around live broadcasts of this nature are nothing new: In television news, even with the possibility of a delayed feed, there have been many broadcast decisions of this nature that have ended poorly.) I wanted to know: Would Rather, were he in charge of a newsroom today, make the call to put what was happening at Trump Tower on Facebook Live?
“I think the answer’s probably ‘yes,’” Rather said. “The pressures are such now—to be fast, to be first, to be quick off the mark—that the old journalism adage of, ‘You trust your mother, but you cut the cards,’ it just can’t hold under today’s pressures. There’s a deadline every nanosecond, and that has really changed the whole base of journalism, including the journalism I do.”
The new journalism—or is it the new new new journalism?—presents its challenges, but Rather is mostly optimistic about how his industry is transforming. He plans never to retire. “I’m excited about it because the potential is almost unlimited,” he said. “I don’t want to preach about it, but certainly it causes me to re-dedicate myself to do quality journalism. I don’t profess to understand the Facebook phenomenon. I don’t understand it. I’m constantly in awe of the potential of it. We’re no longer in the early stages of the digital revolution, but who knows what’s ahead.”