says he has so far been spending the coronavirus
crisis “in lockdown” in his Manhattan apartment for almost three weeks, taking time to exercise, read, and even time to himself. At 7 PM each night, he goes out on his balcony and bangs on a steel pot to participate in the city’s collective cheer for health professionals.
He’s also been tweeting — not just about politics, but to put this moment in some perspective. Even though he has been on the scene for so many previous periods of national crisis, including John F. Kennedy’s assassination, the Vietnam War and Watergate, and then as anchor of CBS News during periods such as 9/11, Rather actually finds no direct comparison to this moment. But there are plenty of reminders.
“As we are roiled by an economic crisis in conjunction with a public health crisis, I am reminded of my childhood during the Great Depression,” he tweeted last week. “A most precious commodity in times of great need is EMPATHY, guiding personal and governmental actions. We help, and do so with humility.”
Rather’s new season of The Big Interview
will premiere on Wednesday at 8 PM ET on AXS TV
, with Huey Lewis as his first guest, in a sit-down conversation that was done before the current crisis. He’s also been writing for the site he founded, Newsandguts.com
He talked to Deadline earlier this week about how journalists have covered this national emergency, why he thinks White House reporters are excelling in the nightly briefings, and why he’s actually optimistic about the country’s ability to get through this.
DEADLINE: You had tweeted last week that what we are going through is an economic crisis, coupled with a public health crisis, and that it actually reminded you of your childhood in the Great Depression. How so?
DAN RATHER: During my lifetime, the Great Depression was the by far the biggest economic threat to the country that we had. And it and the beginning of World War II are the only two times that I can remember when the whole country was affected as deeply the whole nation has been affected by this [virus]. So what I was looking to do is to try to kind of make the comparison. Have we been through anything like this before? And the answer is, not in my lifetime. The closest we would come to this kind of situation in what we’ll call modern American history was of course the flu epidemic of 1918. Although I’ve been blessed to live a long time, even I was not alive during that time….I do want to say that this is unique.
DEADLINE: You made the comparison to 1941. What do you remember of that time — the news sources you relied upon?
RATHER: For myself, I was bedridden for two years in the early 1940s. I had rheumatic fever, and radio became my 24 hour companion. … What I remember from 1941 is how even as a child, and I was 10 years old at the time, the sense was that we might lose the war, that the Germans seem to be unstoppable in Europe and North Africa, and the Japanese seem to be unstoppable on the far rim of the Pacific. And there was a real sense that while we were going to war, it was a war we might very well lose, and there was pervasive sense of that in the country. Even as a child I could feel it.
DEADLINE: Do you feel that same sense of uncertainty right now?
RATHER: No, I don’t. This is so different. I’m an optimist by nature and by experience. And while it’s very hard to be optimistic in the short run, and I do think that this current situation may last longer than we hoped for or anticipate, I don’t really have any doubt that we are going to come through this. And I honestly believe that when we come through it, we will eventually be stronger. But I try to be careful how I say that, where and when I say it, because I don’t want to create a false sense of, ‘Well, things are going to be Ok so nobody needs to worry.’ A lot depends on how hard we fight this. For example, everybody, I mean, every single person has a role to play in this. And do we as a nation, as a society, as a people, do we have the discipline that is necessary to continue staying inside, staying at home, practicing social distancing, doing the things we have to do? As you and I speak today, these days are the decisive days. Either we muster that, we have that, or we don’t.
DEADLINE: So how do you think the country can emerge stronger from this?
RATHER: Well, I think we can emerge stronger because in many ways this has been a humbling experience, that we are the richest, the wealthiest nation on Earth, and we are the most medically advanced nation on Earth. That led to complacency and some conceit. And one of the ways we will emerge stronger out of this is to recognize the dangers of being arrogant, being too conceited, being too complacent, of saying, ‘Well, we are so wealthy. We are so medically advanced. And nothing like one of these Asian pandemics affects us all that much.’ This has been really a wake up call to that. And humility is a great strength, the genuine humility of saying, no matter how much money we have, no matter how smart we think we are, there are always things to learn. And if this teaches us a strong lesson of gratitude and humility as a country, then I think we will emerge stronger for it.
DEADLINE: For times like these, what did you learn as a news anchor and as a correspondent of how to present a national crisis to the American people, night after night?
RATHER: Yes, I have had, I guess you would call it an adventurous life, but I’m not an expert on anything. But to answer your question, as an anchor or appearing on television, one important thing is to remember that it’s always important to convey to your audience a sense of authenticity. Which is to say, be yourself. Don’t try to be something you aren’t. Don’t try to pretend. Don’t see yourself playing a role…The second thing is to stay calm and try to, by your actions — everything from voice, to temper, to the way you present yourself, no matter how tough things get, no matter how difficult the situation — try to convey a sense of calmness. That will also help the authenticity. The third thing is to realize nobody can do it perfectly, that try as you may, we’re all human, and whether you are angry on television or in the living room being a news consumer, nobody can do it perfectly. There ought to be times when you say to yourself, ‘I didn’t do that as well as I should have,’ but to recognize that nobody can do it perfectly. And don’t try to present yourself as somebody who is perfect, because nobody is and you’ll get found out pretty quickly.
DEADLINE: During this crisis, there has been a spike in interest in the traditional network evening newscast. Does that surprise you?
RATHER: Well, I mean to say this respectfully, gently: I am not surprised, because let’s look at the situation. You have a twin crisis, a national health crisis along with an economic crisis. And in this particular one, people have been encouraged and indeed even ordered to stay home. So, the evening broadcast over the major networks…is going to have a large audience tuned to them. And I expect this to last for a while. Now once we get through this horrible period — and we will eventually get through it — whether they’re able to maintain a large portion of that gain in audience will be interesting to see. I would hope they would be able to, but I’m not sure that will be the case…The days of the evening news being the kind of national hearth, where nearly everybody used them and accepted them as laying a foundation of fact from which we can all operate off of, I fear that this return to that during this crisis will be temporary. I hope I’m wrong.
I think the major news networks and the people who work there deserve to be recognized for the job they’re doing. All of them have poured themselves into this, even the ones who are not doing so well in the ratings before and maybe lagging in the ratings now. You know practically everybody in the news business has poured themselves into this…I am not putting people in my profession up there with the frontline people — the doctors, nurses, everybody who works in hospitals and healthcare. I don’t think journalists want to be put on the same level. But I do think that we can acknowledge that during this crisis, up to and including now, that journalism has tried very hard to do its job.
DEADLINE: When President Donald Trump boasts about his ratings, how do you think that should be covered? Should reporters pay much attention to it given everything else that is happening?
RATHER: Our reaction should be to ignore it. Neither his ratings nor anybody else’s ratings matter. We’re talking life and death. To say the least, it is disappointing. To have a president who has such a leadership role to play, the bragging about such things as his ratings are the best in the business, the best it’s ever been and other braggadocio, it’s unbecoming for him, but more importantly it’s unbecoming for the office of the president of the United States. And I do think most people recognize and agree with this, even people who will otherwise support President Trump, that we all know this is ridiculous to be talking about ratings.
DEADLINE: You were asked several weeks ago just about the whole idea of whether networks should be carrying the nightly White House press briefings. Since then, networks like CNN and MSNBC, they have started to cut back and forth to the live coverage of the briefings to try to fact check. Do you think that’s working?
RATHER: I think it’s better, but you have asked me my opinion, and frequently my opinion is not worth more than the guy at the end of the bar. I just think what is going on now is closer to performing the journalistic function. The journalistic function is, ‘What’s the news?’ And if, as has been the case some of the times, the president seeks to use these White House, quote, health briefings, unquote, as political rallies, then what journalists should do is [ask] there any news in it? And if there is news, then report the news, and if there isn’t, then ignore the rest of it. It is a difficult line for journalists to work but, for example, no newspaper prints the entire transcript of these so-called briefings. What newspapers do is they send reporters, they watch and they listen, and they decide what is newsworthy and they print it, but nobody prints the whole transcript. And therefore, to extrapolate from that, I don’t think people in television should carry them, top to bottom, every night. They should be making judgments on, is there news in it? Is there likely news in it? Carry that part and don’t hesitate to cut away, by not airing it, and spend time fact checking.
DEADLINE: How do you think the reporters in that briefing room have handled it?
RATHER: Frankly, I have been impressed. And I recognize that I am a biased witness [as a journalist]. But I think by any objective analysis, the journalists doing the questioning have really distinguished themselves. First of all, most of the time, overwhelmingly, most of the questions have been good questions, good to great questions. Secondly, the reporters who’ve done a very good job of not losing their professionalism in the face of unrelenting presidential attacks, presidential attacks basically to have him change the subject rather than answer the question. It is a favorite technique of his, that rather than answer a question, particularly a tough question, he will attack the reporter. The reporters have done an amazing job of staying calm, just continuing to ask their questions.
DEADLINE: What story do you think is not getting the coverage it deserves in this crisis?
RATHER: I think one story that has [not] been getting the attention it deserves is there are people who have sought to be and who have been profiteers from the situation, such things as price fixing, price gouging, playing favorites in giving government contracts, hoarding materials to drive prices out. These kinds of acts are unpatriotic. They should be held up to public damnation and ridicule, and for that matter brought to the bar of justice when possible. I think it’s understandable, but it’s lamentable that hasn’t received as much attention and investigation as it should. I think as time moves along there may be more of that.
DEADLINE: What do you make of Fox News and how they have covered this pandemic? On the one hand you have people like Chris Wallace, you have the news side of Fox News, and then at night you have the opinion side.
RATHER: You laid it out pretty well. I want to be careful. There are people at Fox News who are trying to do — and some of them have done — a good job in covering this. A standard, even high standard journalistic efforts are being made. On the other hand the heart and soul of Fox News begins the evenings with their opinion programs. And with those programs, by and large overwhelmingly, they have been a disservice, because they dealt in hyperbole, inaccuracies, spreading of false information. As I said, once in a while, there is an exception to that. But if you just pull back and look at it as a whole, it’s been pretty much a propaganda arm of the Trump administration itself. Now insofar as they are accurate, that doesn’t take you very far. That would be one thing. But they are overwhelmingly inaccurate. Now I will acknowledge I am probably not the best person to judge somebody else’s work. But it’s hard for me to see that anybody could watch Fox News in the evening hours and not conclude that they see themselves and they [are] attempting to be, as they say, something [of] a propaganda arm of the Trump administration.
DEADLINE: You have an interview with Huey Lewis. It seems like a good time for this — kind of a relief from what is happening.
RATHER: We try to make them less than interview and more of a conversation with people. Dig down a little deep inside people, and people can dig down deep inside themselves. But, yes, can it be diversion during this very difficult time? Sure. And we’re not able to film any additional interviews at the present time. We are planning to as soon as we can, but it may take them a little while. So in the meantime we were editing material [made] before this crisis.
DEADLINE: There is a film project in the works about how CBS News covered the Kennedy assassination. Have you heard about it? [Rather recounted his experience covering the Kennedy assassination in the book The Camera Never Blinks].
RATHER: It is true that because I was in Dallas at the time of the Kennedy assassination, that frequently somebody who is doing a film will ask me to do an interview of what I remember, of what things happened, but I am not aware of this particular film.
The thing about the Kennedy assassination is that there are so many conspiracy theories. People want to know why did this happen. Why did that happen, including frequently as criticism of journalists who covered the Kennedy assassination. My feeling is that I was there, doing my lot to lead CBS News coverage at the time, and I did the best I could, the best I knew how, and you have to leave it at that. When people make films so much later, speaking of context and perspective, it is hard to have a real historical perspective. It is getting to be what, coming up on 60 [years].
DEADLINE: It’s funny you mentioned conspiracy theories, because we’re already seeing some of these conspiracy theories pop up about the this current crisis.
RATHER: The Internet — which has a lot of strong things, positive things — but one of the downsides of the internet is that anybody, anywhere [who] can construct even a ridiculous conspiracy theory is going to get some traction. It is part of what we live with these days, which is brings us back to the point that it is all the more important to have journalists do more fact-based reporting. It is all the more the important now.
DEADLINE: What gives you a lot of hope of how we come through this?
RATHER: What gives me hope is I have come to appreciate the resilience of the American people. Time after time after time, we’ve been challenged by the Great Depression, we were by World War II. We went through the terrible sixties of great national divide. Assassinations. Heightened racial tensions. We went through 9/11, and time after time after time, we Americans are good about coming back. We are what I would call good ‘get up’ fighters, who will get knocked down and then get up. Now each generation has to demonstrate anew that they have these qualities, and we are now in the process of finding out whether Americans alive today have them. What gives me hope, the biggest thing that gives me hope, is that record of resiliency, of coming back of being good ‘get up’ fighters.
DEADLINE: By the way, how are you managing it?
RATHER: I am in New York City in lockdown, and I am really locked down, in my home in Manhattan. Fortunately I have a balcony and I get my sunshine and fresh air. I have not been outside my apartment for almost three weeks now. So I try to do my exercises. Try to do my reading. Try to have time to myself. At age 88, I am at a vulnerable age, so I am taking all of the precautions that I can in trying to discipline myself, to stick with it, and not give it up.