Past Speakers of the: LANDON LECTURES

Landon Lecture by Dan Rather,

CBS White House Correspondent
Nov. 16, 1972

by Dan Rather

Let it be emphasized in the beginning: I have no pure and simple truths to put before you. Oscar Wilde warned: "Truth is rarely pure and never simple." And Alfred North Whitehead cautioned his Harvard classes: Beware of certitude. In philosophy as well as in science, so few things are certain.

Those thoughts will be much on my mind throughout this. I hope they will be on yours. And please know that in spirit, I seek to stand with Montaigne . . . who said: "I would not be so bold as to take up your time with my words if I thought it were my lot to be completely believed."

Being believed, of course, is much of what being a journalist is about. Truth is what we try to deal in and with. I say "try" because those of us in the daily practice of journalism are acutely aware of how often we fail. Journalism is not a precise science. It is a crude art. Sometimes we fail because we are careless. Sometimes because we aren't smart enough. And, yes, sometimes because we see things we observe truths through the prism of our own prejudices.

The Goal of Every Reporter

Objectivity . . . complete and utter objectivity . . is NOT possible on every story, every hour, every day. Objectivity and fairness are, however, the goal, the ideal of every reporter worthy of the name.

That name "reporter" is important. The basic reporter is distinct from the editorialist, the columnist, the commentator. A reporter may be asked to change roles and become, temporarily or otherwise, an editorialist, columnist or commentator. When he changes roles, the standards change. The reporter may become in such a role an advocate. Whether he does or not, the standards of objectivity and even fairness are more loosely applied if at all for a hopefully broader, different perspective.

All reporters are journalists. Not all journalists are reporters.

This is somewhat akin to the practice of law. All judges are lawyers. Not all lawyers are judges. The analogy doesn't hold all the way. In law, a young attorney practices being an advocate first, then takes the robes of a judge . . . promising to be as objective, as fair as humanly possible under established rules. In journalism, a young reporter takes the oath of objectivity and fairness first that is the first test. Usually, only when he passes that is he allowed to be, even sometimes, an advocate or opinion-stater.

I realize this point is difficult. I don't mean to belabor it. But it is important. It is something that we, as journalists, have done a poor job of explaining.

And we are suffering the consequences. Self-serving politicians, among others, are using it to savage our profession . . . for their own ends. To the point that they have succeeded in limiting some First Amendment rights and are threatening others.

So let me be clear: The tradition of American journalism has been and is: For reporters: Be as objective and fair as humanly possible.

That despite all you may have heard from on the one hand advocates of a return to yellow journalism and on the other, political idealogues remains the fact. The overwhelming majority of practicing reporters and those who teach the craft passionately believe in that tradition.

As with the Ten Commandments . . . the reporter's goals of fairness and objectivity cannot be reached with perfection. That doesn't mean they have been, or should be discarded.

Three Measures of Professionalism

In this country, if a person is a reporter, he or she lives or dies professionally by three main measurements: Fairness, accuracy, speed. And the first of these is the greatest.

The teacher who rescued me from digging pipeline ditches and working oil derrick floors . . . the man who gave me the money, courage and knowledge to try journalism as a life's work . . . Hugh Cunningham . . . burned those words into my head and heart: Fairness, Accuracy, Speed. He would say: "You can survive without the speed, and maybe even without absolute accuracy, but fairness, boy, is the rope . . . lose it and you'll be back digging ditches."

Almost without exception, every reporter I know has had some version of that pounded into him early and late.

The practicing professional reporter sees himself and hopes that others see him as an honest broker of information. Truth or as close as he can get to it is what he is after. ALL he is after.

And let us have this clearly understood: Reporters feel just as strongly about their standards . . . are as dedicated to their ideals ... as any doctor, lawyer, soldier or statesman.

Reporters Saddened by Propagandists

Whatever your political persuasion . . . whatever your own prejudices . . . know and understand that this is part of the reason why reporters are saddened when paid political propagandists . . . many of them on the government payroll, paid with tax funds . . . attack our motives for their own narrow partisan purposes.

And make no mistake: Such propagandists have been and are operating . . . Democrat as well as Republican . . . from the county courthouse to the statehouse to the White House.

Experienced reporters long have recognized this as a fact of professional life. It goes with the territory. But more and more in recent years, the propagandists seem to be succeeding.

Part of that is our fault. We, as I have said, make mistakes. Too many. And we have been too smug, too complacent about reforming ourselves from within . . . about explaining to those we serve who we are, what we are, what we are trying to do and what we are striving to become. We have done a poor job of taking our case to the people.

Besides what has been stated before, that case includes the truth that there is an attempt by those charged with leadership to make reporters and journalism scapegoats. Ours does it need to be said? Is a complex society. Our problems are complex. The tendency among politicians again, it runs through all parties is to blame someone, anyone other than themselves.

Reporters, increasingly, have become favorite targets. The problems are not the problems you are told. The people who call attention to the problems are the problem. War, poverty and racism are not the problems. Reporters the people who call attention to those problems are the problem.

Think about that, if you will, the next time some politician begins his routine about the press.

However, it may seem . . . none of that is said in heat or anger. It is said in hopes of being understood . . . and with the hope that the brightest and the best among our political leaders in all parties may begin working with the brightest and best among journalists for more understanding. And higher purpose. An advisory relationship between reporters and political leaders is, in my judgment, essential. Narrow-mindedness and rancor are not.

More Respect and Trust Needed

We need not more confrontation, polarization, posturing and name-calling . . . but more mutual respect and trust. Trust in ourselves, trust in each other, trust in our leaders. Trust in our leaders is a serious, deepening problem for this country. The prestige of the Presidency, for example, has declined considerably over the past TWO administrations . . . one Democratic, one Republican.

Some of that may be due to errors by reporters. Including my own. We have made errors in judgment and fact. They were errors of the head, not of the heart. Not because I had any political ideals or slant to sell.

The errors, I hope and believe have been infrequent and few. Whatever and however they have been, though, this is the more important consideration: what the mind and ear begs to hear is those in power . . . those few men, including the President whomever he may be who set the tone and mood of the office . . . admit serious policy mistakes. To tell the truth about their failures as well as successes. To level with us all. When is the last time a President ... or a Secretary of State or Defense . . . admitted a serious policy error?

Until that happens . . . and happens regularly . . . reporters will continue trying to ask the tough questions, refusing to take dodging answers, probing for more than just what those in power want known . . . trying by whatever means available to get the truth, some piece of it, as close to the truth as possible. Knowing that we're going to make mistakes. Ready to admit them when we do. Hoping that somehow you Republican or Democrat, Conservative or Liberal will recognize that it is in YOUR best interest that we do so. Not in our own selfish interests . . . but in yours.

A Liberal Media?

Which brings me to another area perhaps worth discussing. The argument that political conservatives (and thus the country) aren't getting a fair shake because most of the media are liberal.

One of the better known newspaper columnists ... recently got a lot of mileage out of agreeing with this thesis. I know and respect the man. He isn't often wrong. But he is about this. And in the process he took some cheap shots at his colleagues.

For openers, who can say with certainty anymore if they ever could who is conservative and who is liberal? Those labels don't mean much in current American politics.

Well, Lyndon Johnson and John Kennedy were liberals, you say. Were they? They protected oil depletion allowances, refused tax reform in general and advocated stronger civil rights laws only after being FORCED by events and public opinion to do so.

Richard Nixon is a conservative, you say? Well, maybe so . . . but is it really conservative to run up $80 billion in deficit spending in four years .... to slap on wage and price controls . . . and begin negotiations with Communist China?

This is not to be critical of any of those Presidents. Or the policies mentioned. It is to point out that it is taking the easy way and wrong to refer to "liberals" and "conservatives" as we did even a few years ago.

And even if those labels meant anything . . . when they did . . . nobody at CBS News, in my experience, ever asks or gives the slightest sign of caring WHAT a reporter's political views are.

That is fact. Perhaps not a widely believed fact, but a fact nonetheless. The newspaper columnist drew up a list of axioms that he used in attempting to show that there is a liberal lock-step view among reporters . . . especially, claimed the newspaper-man, among television reporters. Look closely at some of these tests:

Number One: That realignment of the tax system is overdue. This is not a press invention. George Wallace invented that axiom as it currently runs. And it is believed to be so in tune with the common man that both McCovern AND Nixon went through the last campaign promising such reform.

Number Two: That cutting defense spending is a laudable goal no matter what. (Pause) President Nixon and Defense Secretary Laird proudly point to having been able to cut defense spending. Polls show a big majority of Americans think some further cuts are possible. And what reporter says cuts should be made without looking at any other consequences?

Another: That the war has been a shameful episode and that anti-communism should be subdued, eventually abandoned. No reporter I know advocates exactly this. It is not out of step with the country to say the war may be a serious mistake. And it is President Nixon who keeps telling us about the necessity of an era of negotiations with the Communists.

That white racism must be removed from the American body now really . . . who has been rooting for racism ... of any kind?

Well . . . the syndicated columnist's list is long. But you get the idea. His list of axioms give the illusion of extensive listing of evidence when in fact they show nothing. It also is claimed ... by him and others . . . that the improvement in newsmen's financial and social status has made the profession one of liberal elites. To use an old Texas term: HOGWASH.

In the days of miserable salaries for reporters, it was always claimed that editors were considerably more conservative than reporters. All of a sudden, as reporters start getting somewhat decent pay, they are supposed to be getting more liberal. It doesn't wash.

Same Hopes, Fears and Dreams

The typical Washington correspondent, for example, is suburban rather than urban. He travels in almost exclusively white, middle and upper class circles. He sends his children to almost exclusively white schools. He owns two cars. And, in general, has the same hopes and fears . . . and dreams for his kids . . . you do.

The columnist was correct when he said that it wouldn't be enough to show that the press corps has become more liberal . . . even if he could do that, which he hasn't. To prove his claim that conservatives don't get a-fair shake, there must be some way of showing that personal convictions are getting into news columns and broadcasts.

He doesn't give any convincing evidence of that. He relies on a weak argument about advocacy journalism growing out of the campus unrest of the 1960's taking over. Name a leader of a major campus movement who is now employed in network television. This columnist singles out Walter Cronkite as being biased. Cronkite is a product of campus unrest? Come on. (And would this columnist like to put his own reporting of, say, the McCovern campaign up against Cronkite's for a test on whose was biased and whose wasn't? Well, leave us not belabor this loneer.)

Allow me, for whatever it may be worth, to offer my personal testimony that no one at CBS ever has told me to slant any story in any political or ideological direction. They have stuck by their reporters in the face of heat from President Kennedy and President Johnson, as well as from President Nixon. The freedom given network television reporters to cover stories anyway they see fit ... so long as it does not favor any party, sect or interest ... is unsurpassed by any newspaper or magazine anywhere in the world.

The myth of a liberal hiring bias and liberal news slanting among the networks is not true. Widely believed it may be. But it does not stand the test of objective, fair investigation.

And neither, by the way, is the myth that television itself is one of the great evils of our society ... or, at the very least, is not a force for good. One of my own good friends . . . one of the persons I respect most . . . for his intellect and his integrity . . . succumbed a while back to the temptation of this one.

This one being . . . that broadcasting ... in sound or vision, or both . . . will not prove to have contributed to the advancement of ideas or the education of man as much as the printed word.

That may or may not prove to be right. In the long, historical view ... it is too early for anyone to say. I lean to the view that broadcasting . . . and especially television . . . may indeed prove to have contributed as much as print. I know that the potential is there. The printing press, after all, has been around for five centuries. Television has been around only about one quarter of one century.

Television Strikes at Emotions and Intellect

My friend's thesis is that inherent limitations of our media make it a powerful means of communication, but such a crude one that it strikes at the emotions rather than at the intellect. No. It strikes at both. It enlivens both. Its advantage . . . not disadvantage, compared with other means of mass communication ... is that television brings into concert the eye, ear and mind. And doing what it does best . . . covering live a live event. . . . historical, scientific both or otherwise . . . putting you, as an individual THERE when man walks on the moon, or when the President tours China . . . television clearly is without peer. And the potential has been barely scratched.

My friend also says that television has a dangerous and increasing concentration on action . . . usually violent and bloody . . . rather than thought ... on happenings rather than issues, on shock rather than explanation ... on personalities rather than ideas. That . . . the industry somehow still is unable or unwilling now to move beyond its preoccupation with razzle-dazzle into a preoccupation with substance.

We disagree. Broadcasts have improved. Quality has increased, not decreased. Action remains popular on television . . . because action remains popular with people. Too much bloody action . . . simply for the sake of some to attract audiences . . . has been one of the mistakes most of us in television sometime, have made. And some still are making it.

But let's keep that in perspective. Arnold Toynbee has taught on television. And in prime time. So has Eric Hoffer. Shakespeare . . . Hours on end of political conventions . . . elections . . . war and discussion of war ... on and on that list runs. Sub-stance? Issues? There has been no shortage. To the contrary, too much, as some people are now beginning to complain, could be the problem . . . rather than not enough. Mind you, my own opinion is that you never get an overdose of substance. And in this area, too, let me underline . . . and repeat for emphasis: broadcasting and broadcasters have made mistakes. Too many. And mistakes continue to be made. But to say flatly: "The bright hopes we all had for TV forever elude us" is too sweeping.

News Separate From Entertainment

It has been said: All of us in television have been taught since the day we were hired that this is an entertainment business. That we really haven't informed the nation about what's happening to it. Some of us have been taught since the beginning that commercial television is a curious mixture of business, entertainment, public service and news. And that WE were in news and public service . . . not the entertainment end.

I have heard William S. Paley, Frank Stanton and Richard Salant say to new, aspiring reporters, including this one. What we are at CBS News is a public journal. A public journal is a public trust. Your job is never to forget that. And to never knowingly prostitute that trust.

That is the rule, not the exception. That is the spirit . . . the tone and the mood ... of the way network news . . . not just at CBS, but at NBC and ABC as well ... is operated. And as for not really informing the nation: coverage of the Kennedy assassination and the Civil Rights debate in the Senate, to name just two examples, are among televisions's finest hours.

There is room for argument in much, if not all of this. My plea is for fairness . . . objectivity . . . and perspective. And for correction of mis-statements and inaccuracies.

The temptation may be for you to say: All right. Maybe the news departments are a little okay. But what about those bad guys who run the whole networks. . . . news, entertainment and all. And what about those guys who run the local stations?

May I suggest you not yield to that. Certainly not in any automatic reflex way. There is a populist notion about that if they're big, if they have money . . . they must be bad. The same can be said of political leaders, businessmen . . . even of big, organized public interest groups. The life styles, the backgrounds of many such men ARE different from the great mass of citizens. But unless you are prepared to discredit every such person . . . you can't single out one group. The danger is overgeneralization.

Network Leaders Compare Favorably

The quality of leadership at the top level of the networks in my opinion, clearly labeled compares favorably with top leadership anywhere ... in politics, business or public service.

If one must generalize, these are brilliant, well-motivated people . . . who care about profits, yes, but who also care about their responsibilities. They . . . and their corporations ... -deserve to be judged on their merits . . . individually. And the same is true of local station owners and managers. I worked for a few from Huntsville, to Houston to New York. Good ones, bad ones, in-between ones.

Many of television's top leaders ARE, to my personal direct knowledge, emotionally involved in the responsibility of broadcasting. Some are not. It is not fair . . . nor beneficial . . . to lump them together.

But back to the central point. About the rap that television is a net minus for us as a people, as a society. And that it is getting worse.

Eric Sevareid wrote some years ago . . . and I believe it is more true now than then: Television gets better . . . just as do the films, the press, the magazines. TV has not debased American tastes, standards or habits. It has improved them. It has enor-mously stimulated intellectual curiosity. It has encouraged, not discouraged reading ... as increased book sales prove.

And in this sprawling continental country . . . with its unprecedentedly diverse citizenship . . . television, on balance, has served not as wounder, but as healer . unifier.

Its power compared with its youth can be frightening. But... as with lightning and fire... it can be, has been, is being channeled for more good than evil... more benefit than harm.

Its potential is so enormous . . . for good and bad . . . that all of us in it need and want your help and your thoughtful criticism.

Reasonable Criticism Helpful

What we ask is common sense, reasoning and reasonable help and criticism not that based on misinformation, emotion, or partisan political advantage. It is, to put it simply, a request not to follow the herd. When he was introduced earlier, if I can digress for a moment, I thought to myself, how little over the years, Alf Landon has followed the herd. It used to be an American trait.

Let me read you something that is one of my favorites. Something Archibald MacLeish wrote. I think it's apropos the broad point, this request to you that when considering what reporters are about, what television is about, and what those who lead it are about, not to follow the herd. MacLeish was an admirer of Elmer Davis, somewhat in the same way and for some of the same reasons I am an admirer of Alf Landon. He admired Elmer Davis's independence, his courage, his willingness to go against the grain.

And MacLeish on this point wrote, and I quote, "If it weren't for Elmer Davis, and a few more, but chiefly Elmer Davis, an observant traveler might conclude that the Americans were dying out. Like the moose in Newfoundland, which are reported to be perishing of some obscure psychological disorder, thrashing half blind into trees, mooing morosely around swamps, unable or even unwilling to rid themselves of their ticks. A generation ago the Americans were fairly common in this country, you could hear them blundering about the bush at all hours, sniffing at everything, snorting at what they didn't care for, and intending to be respected by others. Cautious, maybe, but hard to intimidate and impossible to stampede. One mark of an American was the way his neck would swell if you would try to tell him what to think or where to line up. Another was his courage, not always wise, and his humor, not always subtle. And the way he could go around by himself. American conservatives, back in those days, were men who believed in conserving America, including the American Constitution, including also the American Bill of Rights, regardless of the opposition. Men like Charles Evans Hughes. American liberals were men who believed in the achievement of the American revolution, no matter who was against them.

"And you know, neither side ran in packs, neither side was herded by fear or anything else. Where they have gone to now, and why, is the great American mystery. With the moose it is said to be the climate," (Pause) MacLeish.

May I ask you not to follow the herd? By way of asking for understanding, understanding that those of us who are in television, those of us who are in journalism, are not some fanatical breed apart.

Understanding that we share the same basic values and ideals of America. That we, like you and President Nixon, and Presidents before him, are not just willing, but anxious to emphasize, as a people, not always our divisions but our agreements, too.

Healing and Understanding Needed

You know, especially in the wake of this divisive war . . . there is much healing to be done among us. Much understanding . . . Whether it can be done . . . and if so, how much, how fast . . . depends for all of us on our willingness of heart.

The willingness to try to keep trying to be better. A determination to believe that all problems may be soluble and even when you find one that doesn't appear to be soluble, don't admit it. That may, and often does, I know, strike a European ... or an Asian ... as unsound. And it may not, in fact, BE sound. It is American.

Scott Fitzgerald tried once to articulate this feeling when he wrote ... I believe this is a direct quote: "France is a land, England is a people. But America, having about it still the quality of the idea, is harder to utter. It is the graves of Shilo. It is the tired, nervous, drawn faces of its great men. It is country boys from Kansas dying in the Argonne Forest for a phrase that was empty before their bodies were withered. America is a willingness of heart."

Thank You.

The transcription of this Landon Lecture was accomplished through the cooperation of the
Kansas State University Libraries and the Office of Mediated Education.

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