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In St. Petersburg, Dan Rather says it’s ‘gut-check time’ for the press in the Trump era

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Count Dan Rather as among those political commentators who describe the rise of Donald Trump as being part of the “post-truth” political era.

“What I mean by that is that heretofore it’s been taken as a given and was a fact that truth counted for something,” the iconic reporter/news anchor told a packed audience last Friday night at the Hilton St. Petersburg Bayfront Hotel. “Which is to say that if the candidate told an untruth, he or she would be held accountable.”

Several hundred people paid $100 to hear Rather speak Friday at an event sponsored by the Poynter Institute as part of a program hosting the Edward R. Murrow Program for Journalists.

“We never had a campaign as low as this campaign,” Rather told WTSP News Anchor Dion Lim. “We’ve had some nasty campaigns in the past, we’ve had some very rugged customers, but we’ve never had a consistent level of a campaign as uncivil, as really nasty as this campaign, so for that reason alone, I think the campaign will be studied for quite along while.”

Now 85, Rather had to have Lim sometimes repeat questions from the audience because of what he said was his poor hearing, which he repeatedly apologized for. He frequently invoked Murrow, one of his journalism heroes, saying that he would have been “astonished and repulsed by the low nature of the campaign.”

Rather currently hosts, “The Big Interview” on AXS-TV, where he’s more likely to interview musicians than lawmakers. It’s owned by Mark Cuban, who hired him in 2006 to work at HDNet, the network Cuban created in 2001. Initially called “Dan Rather Reports,” the show switched focus when the network was rebranded in 2012.

Cuban took in Rather after his ignominious departure from CBS News after 44 years with the network, 24 of them as the lead anchor of the CBS Evening News. His departure came a year and a half after he became embroiled in a raging controversy that sullied his reputation when the network questioned his report on then-president George W. Bush’s military service.  After the Bush administration questioned the accuracy of the story — and questioned the authenticity of the documents at the heart of the report — an independent investigation concluded the piece disregarded “fundamental journalistic principles” even as it stopped short of deeming the documents relating to his military service as forgeries. Rather was removed from the anchor’s desk and ultimately left the network in 2006.

“This is going to be gut-check time for the American press,” Rather said in criticizing the performance of the media during the past campaign.

He told Lim about how the media should now cover President Trump. “The president-elect has made it clear that he believes that his stated hostility to the press … was one of the components of his winning. And the early indications are that believing that, he will carry that over into his new administration. Now, I quite agree that there needs to be a period in which we American citizens watch, listen, and give the president-elect every opportunity to indicate that some of the things that he said and did during the campaign will not be repeated now that he’s president.”

As he has frequently said in other public appearances, Rather emphasized that U.S. media organizations need to re-engage with investigative reporting. “Does the press ask the tough questions, and more importantly, ask the follow-up tough question?” he asked.

In many ways, the hour-long appearance was a master class for journalism students. Although he didn’t offer an opinion per se of the changing landscape for reporters, it appeared as though he was a little nostalgic for the way the press used to be able to do their job.

“There’s a deadline every nanosecond,” he said. “It hasn’t been that long ago when most reporters had a deadline once a day if you were in the newspaper business, or maybe you had one every other day if you were a distinguished byline correspondent, and in television, maybe once a day. With the advent of first cable television and then the internet itself, now your average reporter is responsible not only for doing actually reporting, but he’s responsible for doing Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, going down the list and is expected to do a blog, and is expected to answer rockets from the home office, from the headquarters asking, ‘can you match our competition on this story?’ I can smile about this, because that’s the reality for most reporters now. But what that does is, it shrinks the time for actual reporting. It shrinks it dramatically, and the consequence of that, is because of the economics of journalism has changed so dramatically in a negative way, you have fewer reporters asking tremendously more things so the ideal of what doing what Ed Murrow was such a great believer in doing, go to the heart of the story … knock on doors. Make telephone calls. Do the travel. Do the excellent reporting. There’s precious little opportunity to do that anymore. And where that goes from here, I’m not quite sure.”

Rather emphasized that “the fundamentals don’t change,” quoting from the Poynter Institute that “journalism is responsible and discerning. Quality journalism of integrity becomes more important, partly because there’s so little of it, partly because the times demand it.”

And channeling Murrow, he told those in attendance who may have been disappointed by the results of the election to get over it.

“Going forward, we need to have some version of clear eyes, full heart, open mind, and be skeptical,” he said. “Murrow was never cynical. There’s a difference of course between cynicism and skepticism. One mark of a good reporter in my opinion is that he keeps his or her skepticism right in front of you at all times, but never descends into cynicism. “

Mitch Perry has been a reporter with Extensive Enterprises since November of 2014. Previously, he served as five years as the political editor of the alternative newsweekly Creative Loafing. He also was the assistant news director with WMNF 88.5 FM in Tampa from 2000-2009, and currently hosts MidPoint, a weekly talk show, on WMNF on Thursday afternoons. He began his reporting career at KPFA radio in Berkeley. He's a San Francisco native who has now lived in Tampa for 15 years and can be reached at mitch.perry@floridapolitics.com.

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