In 1963, Dan Rather confirmed the unimaginable: President John F. Kennedy was dead, the victim of an assassin’s bullet in Dallas. Now, nearly a half-century later, the 80-year-old journalist remembers the difficult emotions of the moment.
“It was a tremendous hammer to the heart of the country as a whole,” Rather said this week during a visit to Washington State University. “You’re going to feel the hammer to the heart just like everyone else.”
Best known for his 24 years as anchor for CBS Evening News, Rather received the Edward R. Murrow Award for Lifetime Achievement Thursday night at the 38th Murrow Symposium in Pullman. He joins past Murrow winners including Ted Koppel, Tom Brokaw, and Walter Cronkite. A graduate of Sam Houston State University, Rather began his career as a reporter for the Associated Press in Texas. Sixty years later, Rather is still at the forefront of investigative journalism as managing editor and anchor of Dan Rather Reports, currently broadcast on AXS.TV (formerly with HDNet).
On Thursday, Rather recalled the changes in modern journalism, but argued that writing and reporting the truth should matter more than who broke the news story.
“Rapid is all the rage,” Rather told the crowd at Beasley Coliseum in Pullman. “With social networking, the bully, the dictator and the scoundrel can now spread propaganda, manipulated with hyperbole, in the time it takes to snap a finger.”
Lawrence Pintak, founding dean of The Edward R. Murrow College of Communication at WSU, said Rather represented Murrow’s commitment to reporting the news, whatever the consequences.
“Rather has modeled himself on Murrow, has been deeply influenced by Murrow and embodies that Murrow legacy of solid reporting, writing and balance,” Pintak said.
Pintak, who worked with Rather as a CBS News correspondent, said Rather was always extremely supportive of the correspondents in the field, especially those in dangerous situations.
“He was always very concerned about the welfare of the reporters and camera crews,” Pintak said. “We were more than just a piece on his ship to him.”
In 2004, the most controversial story of Rather’s career led to the end of his career with CBS. On 60 Minutes, CBS and Rather reported on a series of memos critical of President George W. Bush’s service in the Air National Guard. After critics challenged the authenticity of the documents, CBS retracted the story, but Rather still stands by his report.
“We reported the truth and we got the truth,” he said. “I think the documents were genuine. There’s no joy in reporting this type of story and we paid the price for it.”
Rather’s tactic of “just ask the damn question” portrays the courage that Murrow embodied, said John Paxson, director for Murrow Public Media and former CBS News London Bureau chief.
“He was utterly courageous,” Paxson said. “He would go into God-awful situations and I’m sitting there questioning my own sanity and he’s just soldiering on.”
After more than 60 years in the news industry, Rather has embraced the digital transition.
Pintak said Rather has reinvented himself since his departure from CBS.
“He’s made the jump from being the ‘elephant in the room’ as the network news anchor to new media,” Pintak said. “HDNet was something nobody had heard of until he joined it. He’s made this transition into a new approach to journalism, an entrepreneurial and digitally focused approach.”
Rather said he has stayed committed to being “the honest broker of information.”
“In journalism, you have to burn with a hot, hard flame,” he said. “You have to let it consume you. I always wanted to be a reporter.”
The Murrow Symposium also honored ABC News Correspondent Barry Serafin and 48 Hours Correspondent Peter Van Sant, both WSU graduates. Serafin and Van Sant were inducted into the Murrow Alumni Hall of Achievement, which honors the accomplishments of graduates in the communication fields.