Iconic CBS anchor Dan Rather reflects on 60 years of influential reporting

Dan Rather thinks before responding during his talk on his book, “What Unites Us,” at Boston University’s Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center on November 19, 2019. Photo by Hannah Harn/BU News Service

By Sabrina Schnur
BU News Service 

BOSTON — Former CBS correspondent Dan Rather instilled his wisdom upon several hundred Boston residents and young reporters about the challenges of journalistic truth seeking and the future of impeachment in the wake of recent hearings. 

Rather, 88, visited Boston University Tuesday night to speak about his most recent book, “What Unites Us: Reflections on Patriotism,” and use the trauma he faced reporting for CBS for 44 years to advise aspiring professionals making their way into the news industry.

Rather fielded questions from BU College of Communication students Sofie Isenberg and Nick McCool who quoted segments of the longtime anchor’s book. The event was hosted by the Howard Gotlieb Center, which holds Rather’s archive.

Nick McCool (l.) and Sofie Isenberg (r.) of Boston University’s College of Communication talk with Dan Rather during his visit to the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center on November 19. Rather discussed his new book, “What Unites Us.” Photo by Hannah Harn/BU News Service

Rather is the current CEO of the production company News and Guts where he has worked since 2013 after being fired from CBS News in 2006 for reporting debatable facts about former President George W. Bush’s time in the military.

“Journalism is not an exact science. It is, on its very best days, a kind of crude art. No one can do it perfectly,” Rather said Tuesday. “We reported a true story, but in the process of reporting that true story we made some mistakes, and we had to face the burners and take the heat.” 

Rather brought up the heat journalists face numerous times while reflecting on his career, and focused on those in the ballroom who were not journalists when he said reporters are human and they too have emotions. 

“I do think it’s important to understand for those who aren’t in journalism that on really emotional stories,” Rather said, pausing, “I can either take myself offline and deal with my emotions or close them off and push them away and focus on the story.”

Rather said when reporting on the terrorist attacks of 9/11, he repressed his own emotions for nearly a week, up until he left the CBS studio and went to Late Night with David Letterman, where he emotionally quoted America the Beautiful.

Rather also talked about the attacks on local journalism, which he called the greatest loss to our democracy. The longtime journalist argued that without local news there is no system of checks and balances, beginning at the level of the local legislature.

“A free, independent, fiercely independent press is the red beating heart of freedom in democracy,” Rather said.

Rather’s first assignment for CBS was to cover a Dr. Martin Luther King rally, and though the Houston native grew up in the 30s, Rather said he had only heard rumors of the Klu Klux Klan before that assignment.

“Texas had institutionalized racism. We had deep and abiding segregation enforced by state and local laws,” Rather said, recognizing his own state’s troubled past. “I do remember thinking to myself, ‘Here I am I’m white and I had something of a southern accent, and if this scares the hell out of me, what must it be like for people of color in this community?’”

Toward the end of the conversation, Rather gave his theories on impeachment based on his experience with the resignation of former President Richard Nixon and the Watergate Scandal.

Dan Rather responds to questions from BU journalists Nick McCool and Sofie Isenberg during his talk at the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center on November 19, 2019. Photo by Hannah Harn/BU News Service

“There are any number of similarities between what is happening today and what was happening during the period we call Watergate,” Rather said. “Watergate is a shorthand word for where we had a widespread criminal conspiracy led by the president of the United States himself.”

Rather compared this to President Donald Trump’s involvement in possible crimes, which is being investigated by the House of Representatives. He said he doesn’t believe the Senate would be se dead set to party lines as to vote for or against impeachment based solely on that fact.  

“I’m a little skeptical of the view that the Senate will never vote to impeach a member of their own party,” Rather said. “What we know from the Watergate experience is what we expect frequently does not occur and what we least expect often happens, so I would say be prepared for the unexpected.”

In closing remarks, Rather encouraged young reporters to remember the values the industry expects and each reporter’s own reasons for doing the public service they perform.

“Public trust in journalism has gone down and we have a president who is unrelenting in his castigating of individual reporters, and institutions and the whole practice of journalism,” Rather said. “I’m worried young people might say ‘this is not a good time to be in journalism.’ I would say this is a great time to get into journalism.”  

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