By William G. Korver, Reporter, BroadbandCensus.com
MINNEAPOLIS, June 7 – Media consolidation has led American journalism to become spineless and insipid because owners of major media outlets no longer believe that they are organs of the public trust, said former CBS News anchor Dan Rather.
“American journalism has lost its spine, and we need a spine transplant,” said Rather, speaking at a press conference at the National Conference on Media Reform here on Saturday.
Rather was on the program to speak during the Saturday night keynote at the conference, which assembled about 3,000 activists generally critical of media and communications companies.
Until relatively recently, Rather said, “the people at the top of any media company saw news as a public trust, and to be operated in the public interest.” But the accumulation of media companies into single outlets has led to less diversity, he said, and a greater focus on profit margins.
Because media companies are themselves engaged in lobbying for policy changes before agencies like the Federal Communications Commission, that “oftentimes and increasingly comes into the conflict with investigative reporting” by their own journalistic operations.
He also said that pressure for high broadcast ratings, and the need to appeal to ever-more lucratic demographic segments of the audience, have pushed a significant portion of nightly news programs over to mere “celebrity gossip.”
Rather refused to answer a question about the dispute surrounding his departure from CBS News, which came after he reported about forged documents — allegedly about President George W. Bush’s draft record — as if they were authentic. CBS subsequently retracted the report. Rather cited the litigation that he has pending against CBS.
In spite of technological trends away from broadcasting and toward cable, satellite and Internet distribution of news and video, Rather said, “reports of the death of over-the-airwaves broadcast network are very premature.” The end of the broadcast era, if ever, would occur in the medium-to-long-run future, he said.
“[Broadcasters] will adjust to the digital world, no matter what it is,” he said.
On the other hand, Rather also said that the Internet would continue to increase in importance. He said he supported Network Neutrality, or blocking efforts by Bell and cable companies to offer differential pricing for business customers, because the Internet “needs to be open and free.”
Asked to sum up his hopes for the future of journalism, Rather said: “a true and freely operating press is the red-beating heart of freedom and democracy. The public has a stronger sense of this than they did a while back.”