It’s been a tough week for hard-news junkies like Dan Rather.
On Tuesday, Al Jazeera America ceased operations after less than three years, silencing an outlet that had won numerous awards — including Peabodys and Emmys -— for its in-depth journalism. A few days before that, at least two dozen staffers at Mashable were fired, as the site rid itself of global news and politics coverage.
“I’m disappointed when anything that has the slightest inclination of being a news program goes off the air,” Rather said of Al Jazeera America’s abrupt exit, which left around 700 staffers without a job. “I applauded their effort. They had a lot of resources for first-class reporting. But they couldn’t find a market for it… my expectation is these blows will continue.”
Al Jazeera America was touted as a newsy alternative to the opinion-oriented and entertainment-centric coverage found on other news channels. But the network attracted a tiny audience (averaging around a paltry 20,000 viewers), which many attributed to preconceived negative connotations audiences held toward the Al Jazeera brand.
“With investigative reporting, there are really only a few places still trying to do it,” Rather lamented. “‘Frontline’ and ’60 Minutes.’ I still do it, but the only place I have to put them now is some platform on the Internet. It’s increasingly difficult to find a regular outlet for the kind of journalism that I and others got in the business to do.”
Rather, 84, can still be seen on TV, chatting with entertainment stars on AXS’s “The Big Interview.” He also has been experimenting with reports on Facebook Live, and interviewed pop culture stars like Bravo’s Andy Cohen and Josh Ostrovsky (“the Fat Jew”) for Mashable – although the team that brought him in over there, led by executive editor and chief content officer Jim Roberts, just departed.
But Rather hasn’t had a regular home to produce long-form stories and documentaries since he launched the newsmagazine “Dan Rather Reports,” which he produced for Mark Cuban’s HDNet channel, ended in 2013. When HDNet turned into the music-focused AXS, there was no longer a spot for a show with in-depth news investigations.
Although it wasn’t widely seen, the show garnered several Peabody and Emmy Awards. Rather still lauds Cuban for financing the show at a cost of more than $60 million.
Rather created “Dan Rather Reports” with Cuban after leaving his longtime anchor gig at CBS News in 2005. Despite his storied tenure at CBS, where he anchored “CBS Evening News” for 24 years, Rather’s exit was clouded in controversy. He departed following questions about the accuracy of “60 Minutes” report on President George W. Bush’s Texas Air National Guard service; he later filed suit against the network, but a New York court eventually dismissed his complaint.
With “Dan Rather Reports” off the air, “I spend more of my time than I’d like to spend going around trying to find an outlet for investigative reporting, high-quality political and international reporting,” he said. “I haven’t found a place to do that on a regular basis… I’m sorry to say, that there’s been a marked trivialization of the news. Entertainment values have overwhelmed news values.”
Rather said he’s been trying for nearly two months to find a partner so that he could report from Afghanistan.
“It remains a vastly underreported story,” he said. “I know there is a market for hard news. I can’t argue that it’s a bigger market than entertainment. But ’60 Minutes’ is probably the most valuable property CBS has had over the last 50 years. There is an audience for it if you build in quality, integrity, and patience. But I haven’t been on the winning side of this argument for a long time.”
It was a different story 25 years ago, Rather said, when TV decision makers still viewed news as a “public trust. That has now gone completely away. To a very large degree the sense of news, particularly with high integrity of being a public service has gone completely out of the corporate mind.”
Rather said he’s at least heartened that TV news is paying more attention to political news this election cycle – even if it’s almost solely because of the circus atmosphere.
The newsman said he understands the power Donald Trump has wielded this election season: “Give him credit, he’s been masterful in generating free air time,” Rather said. “In so doing, he has overwhelmed every other candidate in the race. He understands TV, and he also understands better than any candidate how to use and manipulate the digital world, particularly Twitter.”
Can Trump win? “I, for one, I don’t underestimate him,” he said.
Ever the news hound, Rather – who was famously roughed up on camera during the 1968 Democratic National Convention – said he’ll attend both parties’ conventions, no matter what. “I’ve been at every one beginning with 1960,” he said. “Even if I have to hitchhike to the convention and camp out as a homeless person, I intend to be there. This summer is going to be some ride.”
Check out the “Truth” trailer below: