“What Unites Us” —Important Lessons from @danrather at the #UpfrontSummit
“The institution of a free press in America is in a state of crisis greater than I have ever seen in my lifetime, and perhaps in any moment in this nation’s history.” — Dan Rather
I sat down to interview Dan Rather at the 2018 Upfront Summit about his outlook for our country one year into the Trump presidency. The interview was conducted around the thesis of Dan’s newest book, “What Unites Us,” which is a must read. You can watch the interview here or in the embed below. It’s truly an inspirational listen and there are some insightful lessons about democracy itself.
If you don’t know, Dan Rather was a new journalist for CBS News for 44 years including 24 years as the anchor of CBS Evening News. He was a pioneer in reporting the civil rights struggle, Vietnam, Watergate, Iran-Contra, The Gulf War and so many more historical moments in our history.
“What Unites Us” is a concise reflection of what it means to be an American and the common set of values we hold even in a world in which we feel so divided. You can order it here.
As the title implies, Rather seeks to find the strands that unite us rather than divide us but a lot of our interview and a lot of what Dan talks about publicly is about how much is at stake with the direction of the Trump administration. I’d encourage you to watch it — it is just 25 minutes — because Dan Rather is still so eloquent with his words and thoughtful in his outlook.
Dan told me that his goal in continuing to publish (you should follow him on Facebook if you don’t already) and his goal with the book is that he realizes that he is now in the latter years of his life (Dan is a very cogent and capable 86 years old) and he wants to find a way to collaborate with young entrepreneurs today to get out the messages in the world about the things we have in common and the importance of liberal democracies and tolerance.
“I understand that my time to shape and help this world is passing … I hope now to inspire others to love this country, to pledge to work hard to make it a healthier and more just place to live. I believe strongly that the core tenets I love most about this nation can be a foundation for commonality and strength once more.” — Dan Rather in “What Unites Us”
His media organization is called “New and Guts” and if you think you can help Dan spread messages that unite us please reach out to me and I’ll connect you with his organization.
In the interview, I asked Dan about his statement, “the institution of a free press in America is in a state of crisis greater than I have ever seen in my lifetime, and perhaps in any moment in this nation’s history.”
Rather worries, as do I, about the destruction of norms in our country because we can disagree about policies or even about the leaders we want but when you attack the fundamental role that the media plays in our society then you undermine the potential existence of a liberal democracy itself. The pillars of democracy require the acceptance of and trust in our media and our first amendment rights to free speech.
I give you some of Dan’s quotes talking about the current state of the Trump’s hostility towards the press.
“Even with President Nixon, he never said such things as, ‘the press is the enemy of the people.’
This is not normal. This is unprecedented.
(His goal is) destroying one of the institutions that is responsible for checks-and-balances on his power.
This is the mark of an autocratic regime.”
Rather talks about the administrations efforts to confuse nationalism with patriotism and Trump’s willingness or desire to descend into extreme extreme economic, racial and religious nationalism.
There is an effort on behalf of his party to make it seem normal, that “every President has these reactions to the press or institutions — and maybe Trump just takes it a little bit further.”
“This isn’t normal. This is a very big deal.”
Dan and I talked about a book we both loved but also feared, “In the Garden of Beasts” that profiled the rise of Nazi’s in Germany in their earliest rise to power. It is a riveting and prescient book that is based on actual letters from the US Ambassador to Germany and his daughter in the run up to Hitler seizing power.
The book chronicles how initially many German leaders and business people thought Hitler was a joke and would eventually be cast aside but they were waiting for somebody else to do it. Hitler undermined the press and the courts and importantly placed his loyalists in the intelligence services and undermined military and judicial leadership. It was only after Hitler had his allies in critical roles of government and media that he took a more aggressive, militaristic stance under the guise of “national security.” Hitler created false crises and by then there was no independent press to challenge him and no business leader willing to risk his life to stand up against the strengthened intelligence services.
Dan made it clear that we weren’t anywhere near Adolf Hitler and the rise of Nazism but that this is a direction America could go if we as a country don’t take seriously the importance of checks-and-balances on our government.
Other topics we discussed?
- How the government can use patriotism to descend into nationalism and then the more destructive forces of nativism and ultimately tribalism that have beset the most oppressive regimes in history. We discussed how we need to be mindful of the slow decline in values that lead to this.
- The right to vote, “One of the key values that Americans fundamentally agree on is the right to vote but from time-to-time in our nations history we have limited the right to vote too severely. It has been a constant struggle for us to live up to our ideal that: One person, one vote.” Dan spoke of some of the recent efforts to restrict voting — particularly for people of color or Latinos.
- The topic of “inclusion.” What Dan told me was that “inclusion” isn’t about diversity per se as the end goal but the term literally signifies including somebody into work, life or any initiative that changes your perspective. In Dan Rather’s book he talks about Ruth Bader Ginsberg who was appointed the the Supreme Court in 1993. Of the 106 judges who preceded her 105 of them were men (Sandra Day O’Connor was the first woman). Now 33% of Supreme Court Justices are women (vs. 8% of VC partnerships, for example). Dan talks about a landmark case in 2009 that involved whether it was legal to strip search a 13-year-old girl. In the oral arguments of the case many of the justices expressed skepticism that the girl’s rights had been violated. From the book …
“They had never been a thirteen-year-old girl,” Justice Ginsburg explained to the USA Today. “It’s a very sensitive age for a girl. I didn’t think that my colleagues, some of them, quite understood.”
Justice Ginsburg apparently set out to make sure they understood and in a result that surprised many court watchers, the judges, despite initial skepticism, ruled 8–1 in favor of the girl. Have a woman in the group of decision makers gave the group insights they may not have had on their own. Inclusion begets understanding, which in turn begets more comprehensive decisions.
We also spoke at length about the media industry. We spoke about the consolidation of media platforms “90% of media distribution is controlled by just 6 international business entities.” In this light we spoke about “the Fairness Doctrine” which was eliminated by FCC under the Reagan administration. It is an important precedent for which many are unaware. It originally required media companies to present both sides of public policy arguments under the belief that with concentrated media distribution it was important that a populace stay informed and was upheld 8–0 by the Supreme Court in 1969. However, when Reagan’s FCC abolished it the Supreme Court ruled 5–4 in the FCC’s favor citing “expanding sources of communication had made the Fairness Doctrine’s limits unnecessary.”
The eradication of the Fairness Doctrine led to the rise of right-wing talk radio personalities like Rush Limbaugh and Fox News’ current Trump propagandists like Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson, Jeanine Pirro and others. It is clear that there is a two-way misinformation vector between Trump and Fox News that serves both entities’ goals. This deserves more public scrutiny. Fox has many legitimate and respectable news reporters but the difference between “news” and “propaganda shows” isn’t clearly delineated for audiences.
I don’t think I could do the entire Dan Rather interview justice so I hope you’ll consider watching it. I think you’ll find Dan as insightful about our country and the messages of both “unity” but also “responsibility” to own the protection of democracy still required.
“What Unites Us” —Important Lessons from @danrather at the #UpfrontSummit was originally published in Both Sides of the Table on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.