Gwen Ifill, right, interviewed Dan Rather about the role of information in a free society and the state of American journalism. (Jeremy Bigwood)
Gwen Ifill, right, interviewed Dan Rather about the role of information in a free society and the state of American journalism. (Jeremy Bigwood)

Dan Rather feted for career, support for press freedom

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As he exited his car and entered the performance center, the man in the dark pinstriped suit caught the attention of a few people, who trailed after him. The small crowd greeted him respectfully and enthusiastically, as someone they felt they had known all their lives. In return he shook hands calmly and asked the names of his greeters. He was veteran television news anchor and reporter Dan Rather.

Rather is this year’s recipient of the Committee to Protect Journalists’ Burton Benjamin Memorial Award for lifetime achievement in defending press freedom. At an event Thursday commemorating CPJ’s three decades of battling for free expression, at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., Rather was interviewed by PBS’s Gwen Ifill, where he discussed today’s challenges to independent journalism as well as his own career.

The interview was preceded by the screening of a documentary chronicling CPJ’s 30 years of advocacy. “Frankly, we would not exist if not for Dan Rather,” said CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon, adding that Rather sought out the organization and offered his involvement. He then recruited Walter Cronkite, another American television icon, who became CPJ’s honorary chairman. “Their involvement gave the fledging organization the legitimacy it needed,” Simon said.

Ifill steered Rather to reflect on the core values of journalism, the role of information for a free society and the state of American journalism today. He discussed his journeys to Texas, the former Yugoslavia, and Afghanistan, and remembered interviews with Saddam Hussein and Muammar Qaddafi. He also reflected on the roots of his calling to become a journalist: “My father described the newspaper as a poor man’s college,” he said, noting that quality journalism can change people’s sense of what they deem to be important.

Regarding today’s journalism landscape, in which half the journalists requiring some sort of assistance from CPJ are online journalists, Rather said that online media “broadens and deepens our work” for press freedom at CPJ.

But he said the Internet has contributed to the challenge of financing credible, thorough reporting in a sustainable manner. News standards have been plummeting since the 1980s, he said, pointing to what he termed “politicization, corporatization, and trivialization.”

“No more than six international conglomerates that own all kinds of businesses control 80 percent of the distribution of news in this country,” Rather said, adding that those corporations “are in bed with big government.”

“This is a short, medium and long-term threat to the kind of free and independent journalism that we have known,” he said. Rather also decried “entertainment values that have overwhelmed information values” and led to “news programming that is in fact entertainment programming, with people shouting at each other.”

Still, Rather said he believes in the fundamental importance of the profession. He defines being a journalist this way: “You feel you are a holder of the public trust and seek the truth to the best extent possible, and tell the story with integrity.”

Journalists who have upheld such standards despite recriminations including censorship, harassment, assault, kidnapping, and torture, will be celebrated Tuesday evening, when CPJ honors the four winners of the 2011 International Press Freedom AwardsMansoor al-Jamri (Al-Wasat, Bahrain), Natalya Radina (Charter 97, Belarus), Javier Valdez Cárdenas (Ríodoce, Mexico), and Umar Cheema (The News, Pakistan). CPJ will also present Rather with the Burton Benjamin Memorial Award and present a Press Freedom award to editor Eynulla Fatullayev, who was honored in 2009 while still imprisoned in Azerbaijan.