WITH DAVID FAHRENTHOLD, ARTHEL NEVILLE, AND DAN RATHER
WEDNESDAY, DECEMBER 9, 2020
Talia Stroud: This event is being put on by the Center for Media Engagement. The Center envisions a vibrant American media that more effectively empowers the public to understand, appreciate, and participate in the democratic exchange of ideas.
The center emphasizes four main topics: journalism, propaganda, science, communication, and media ethics. We are grateful to our funders, especially the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation Democracy Fund, and the Hewlett Foundation. Since 2011, the Center has partnered with over 150 news organizations and several major social media platforms to research their practices.
Over 400 news organizations have changed a practice as a result of the center’s work. We have over 100 free media ethics case studies in use by more than 80 schools, colleges, and universities. And if you’re interested in learning more, please see our website at www.mediaengagement.org.
Our goal tonight is to think more deeply about the role of journalism and the work of journalists during this most tumultuous year. I can think of no more important moment to have this conversation. 2020 has seen a global pandemic, protest against police brutality, a national conversation about race, and a contentious presidential election. We are lucky enough to have three people who have been at the forefront of these conversations with us tonight. It’s my pleasure to introduce them to you.
First, David Fahrenthold is a reporter covering the Trump family and its business interests. He has been at the Washington Post since 2000 and previously covered Congress, the federal bureaucracy, the environment, and the DC police. Fahrenthold is also an on-air contributor to NBC News and MSNBC. His awards include a Pulitzer Prize for national reporting in 2017.
Arthel Neville is an anchor on the Fox News channel covering breaking news, foreign policy politics, and international headlines. America’s News Headquarters is the only traditional news cast consistently in the top 10 rated shows in all of cable programming for the day. Neville began her career as a reporter in a highly respected local newsroom, and seven years in, she got her national break and forged an unmatchable career. She became the nation’s first high-profile African-American female entertainment reporter. She hosted and produced a one-on-one celebrity interview show on E! Entertainment Television. Next, Neville launched EXTRA, a nationally syndicated entertainment news show broadcast to millions of viewers nightly.
Our next speaker has a distinguished record of television around the globe. Dan Rather has covered virtually every major event in the world in the past 60 years from his early local reporting in Texas on Hurricane Carla to his unparalleled work covering the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, the civil rights movement, the White House and wars in Vietnam, Afghanistan, the Persian Gulf, Somalia, Zimbabwe, Yugoslavia, and Iraq.
He was on the scene during the Tiananmen Square uprising. From his first days as an associated press reporter in Huntsville, Texas, in 1950, Rather has more than earned his reputation as “the hardest working man in broadcast journalism.” In 2006, Rather founded the company News and Guts and became an anchor and managing director of HDNet’s “Dan Rather Reports,” which specializes in investigative journalism and international reporting. This work now continues on AXS TV and social media. He has received virtually every honor in broadcast journalism, including numerous Emmy and Peabody awards. Rather has also authored or co-authored nine books, five of which have become New York Times bestsellers—most recently, “What Unites Us: Reflections on Patriotism” released in November of 2017.
Thank you all so much for being here. Let’s dive on in. Mr. Rather, in the book “What Unites Us” with Elliot Kirschner that I just mentioned, you write that “presently, the institution of a free press in America is in a state of crisis greater than I have ever seen in my lifetime, and perhaps in any moment in this nation’s history.” Why do you think this is the case?
Dan Rather: Well, in no particular order, these are among the reasons. First of all, a free and independent, truly independent press. It has been under unrelenting, political, and ideological attack for some years now, really beginning, and no later than, the late 1970s, early 1980s and accentuated in the last few years with the president of the United States dedicated to diminishing the public’s trust in the press. So that’s one factor, the outright propaganda. So this has taken its toll again. These are in no particular order. Number two, the disappearance of the old business model which supported overwhelmingly journalism as we knew it, which is to say it was advertisers who supported the journalistic institution or operation, whether it be a small newspaper or a big network, the income was from advertising. Part of it was to do journalism’s basic work, including, at its best, but not confined to, this deep digging in investigative reporting, first-class international reporting, and extensive local news reporting by local news outfits. The business model was smashed by the internet.
And, with very few exceptions, nobody has come up with a business model that will replace it, and that would finance integrity, field journalism, in the name of public service as we once had it. Number three, it ties into what I just said, the consolidation of media. By and large, fewer and fewer competitors who are truly national distribution news and the other factors of the definition of the line between news and entertainment.
All of these factors have contributed to the diminishing public trust in the press. I do want to say that, I would add to this, that those of us who were in journalism have made our mistakes and I’ve certainly included myself in that criticism, that we haven’t been as good listeners as we should have been. And we haven’t been as humble as I think we probably should have been.
Talia Stroud: Thank you for kicking us off with that important answer. Ms. Neville, what do you think from your vantage point?
Arthel Neville: Well, first of all, thank you very much for having me. And I’m humbled to be in such outstanding and accomplished company.
You know, I agree with Mr. Rather. A couple of points, in no particular order: there’s been a muddling and thus confusion about what is news and what is opinion. And I think that a part of that is due to there’s so many sources. I’m certainly not demonizing the entire brand of social media, the whole category if you will, but you can find anything you want on the internet to support what it is that you would like to think and believe.
But I think that in journalism, again, it’s not helpful for journalists or the professional journalism to be demonized as the enemy of the people and to have the trust picked away and picked at by people of power. We are in the Constitution for a reason. It helps to bolster our democracy to make sure there are checks and balances.
So I think that in kind of what Mr. Rather also talked about business models. There are so many outlets out there, which is great for businesses. That’s what we live in, a world of capitalism. So, various people can get into various businesses and profit, et cetera, which is not to say that profit is the main driver, but it is business.
So my point to that, because there are so many sources again, sometimes people will get confused as to what is real and what is not. So all we can do as journalists is to stick to the truth as we know it, dig into the story as best we can, and, you’re right, when we make a mistake, you come on and you say it immediately. Therefore, people know that you don’t have any hidden agendas, and if you make a mistake, you say that and they realize that again your whole idea is to be fair, and to be honest, and to be truthful.
Talia Stroud: Thank you so much for that. And how about you, Mr. Fahrenthold?
David Fahrenthold: Well, I think, there’s not much more to say. They’ve made a great point. This is just one thing I noticed in President Obama’s new book. He talked about his experience campaigning in 2008, where he would say, he’s going around Iowa, you’d go to a small town and there’d be kind of a guy in a bow tie who was the editor of the local paper.
And you’d meet with that person maybe. Obama says maybe that guy was a conservative. Maybe he didn’t agree with you, but he was somebody who would give you a fair hearing. And then he was trusted by the people in that community. And if you could win that guy over, if you could answer his questions, you would reach somebody who people knew in that area.
And then Obama says, come back in 2016 campaigning for Hillary, that guy and his paper are gone. And a lot of those small town news sources are gone now just not only hollowed out, you know, but they don’t exist. And so what fills the space or what we hope will fill the space are outlets like mine, you know, newspapers that used to serve one city and now try to serve the country. But we are coming to those folks, I think, without understanding what we look like to them. And by that I mean something that I felt wasn’t talked about, that we often mix news and opinion in ways that are obvious to us, ways, you know, in our mind, it’s easy to tell what’s opinion and what’s news, but if you’re reading the Washington Post for the first time, it may not be.
And so I think we have to be cognizant of the fact that if we are going to fill in this gap to fill in all these folks, who’ve lost certain local source of news, we need to be better at explaining who we are and why they should trust us versus all of the thousands of other things that look like news or that are news from a particular ideological vantage point.
Talia Stroud: Thank you for that. I think it’s a really important observation. I’m hoping that now we can turn to some of the most pivotal events of the past year. This week, the U.S. broke records for the number of coronavirus deaths in a week. Do the media have a responsibility to encourage the public, to follow public health guidelines? And how do you think this will play out when the vaccine becomes widely available? Ms. Neville, if I might, I know you were covering this over the weekend. Let’s start with you.
Arthel Neville: Well, the main thing is to stick to the facts, follow the science and report the science and the facts. And I think when you, every time that you can, so that’s first and foremost, when you can also humanize any story, which is what I strive to do, once you do that and you realize, I feel like that’s a way to kind of break down the barriers that separates us as people. And if you realize that we’re all people with the same desires for family and stability and security and all of those things, and really you are not different from me as a human being. And so when you put those human faces on any story, particularly this story, because there’s such division over a vaccine of all things and you also make sure it follows the science. And this science is going to change because this is a novel coronavirus that even the scientists will say what they knew eight months ago is different from what they know now. And, I try my best to put on scientists, doctors who are in the making of the sausage, if you will, of these particular vaccines and people who will say this is right, we got this right, we got this wrong. So when it’s time, and I asked this over and over, I’ll ask every time: is it safe? Can we trust the vaccine? Because that’s what I want to know. That’s what you at home, that’s what you want to know. So as long as you cover this and make sure you stick to the facts, you don’t get into any of the salacious insanity that has politicized a vaccine of all things, a virus of all things, so you do that, and you just get it right. Just get it right. It’s so important in the, what I wanted to say is that you have to respect people. You know, you can’t come at a story and assume that everybody is on board with this. People may have medical reasons for not taking, getting vaccinated. There are people who would have religious purposes for not getting vaccinated. So again, you can’t denigrate or dismiss someone’s valid concern over this, but what I don’t condone are the conspiracy theories circling out there about a vaccine. That’s not what we’re doing here.
So, again, in summation, I’d say stick to the facts and humanize the story at every given turn.
Talia Stroud: Great suggestions there. And Mr. Fahrenthold you’ve covered the pandemic in several articles this year. What would you add?
David Fahrenthold: I think Arthel had it right with some of the most powerful stories I’ve read about the coronavirus are, we have this series this year called voices from the pandemic where we’ve talked there. It’s basically as-told-to stories, first-person stories by a funeral director or EMS director, somebody with COVID, somebody who’s afraid of getting COVID and hearing them talk about what their experience was like. I feel like there’s nothing more powerful than reading somebody like you who’s suffering from this. So I think it is important for us to tell people they should wear masks, they should listen to the scientists, but as Arthel said, giving it in the voice of somebody else, not me, but you know, here’s somebody who’s really living with it. I think that’s the most powerful thing you can do.
Talia Stroud: And Mr. Rather, what would you add?
Dan Rather: Well, first of all, I want to echo the sentiments stated earlier. It’s very important to stick to the facts and to tell people, this is what we know, this is what we think we know but I’m not sure of, and this is what we don’t know. Always be careful to separate those things and explain to people the difference and follow the science and follow the scientists. I’m happy to say that there’s been a renewed interest on journalists to be better prepared to report on science. I’m stumbling a little bit here because I’ve never been particularly good reporting science and I wish I were better. But all of us have to get better, particularly in this. And let’s have it out, that from the President on down, there’s been an anti-science movement in the country, a real effort to diminish public confidence in science of all things. And as journalists, we can be important in offsetting that, but stick to the facts, listen to the scientists, do all you can to explain why science changes. Science, after all, it’s basically curiosity. And I know some people get frustrated and angry. They say, “well, the scientists told me one thing back in March. They tell me another thing.” Now this is a good role for journalists. Explain why that is true, that scientists are learning as they go.
But all of these I think are things we need to have in mind as we go through. But in the end, I would also say to underscore what David mentioned earlier, you know, it’s an old rule in journalism: don’t tell me about 10,000 people, tell me about one person, which is another way of saying, the story really comes to life when you can concentrate on one person or one family and really dig deep into that story and bring it to screen or bring it to print is the most effective thing.
One other thing I would say is that all of us, that includes myself in this, we tend to emphasize numbers and charts. I believe that photographs are stronger than charts. And particularly, as we say in television, pictures that wiggle, which is to say television pictures, are particularly strong. And, beyond that, I also think it’s really important to be listening to people. What are the public’s questions? We tend to make up the questions as we go from our own head, but this is what reporting is about. It’s getting out and listening to what are the questions in the public’s mind? What are they thinking? And try to come up with the answers.
Talia Stroud: I love that so much. Turning to the next topic for us: what grade would you give the media in covering the campaign, the election, and its partisan aftermath, and why? Mr. Fahrenthold, you’ve been writing extensively about Trump and the election aftermath, what do you think?
David Fahrenthold: I think that the media has actually done—I’ll speak for us, the Washington Post, the part I’ve been part of—I think we’ve done a really good job of covering the aftermath and a better job of covering the election than we did then in 2016. The aftermath has been a really disturbing period to be a reporter to watch huge numbers of people led by the President deny a reality, deny something that is at the heart of our system. You know, America is about the peaceful transfer of power and to see people sort of trying to undermine that as ham-handedly and ineffectively as they have is a disturbing thing to write about. But I feel like the media has been very good, at least in my experience, at calling out what was true, what was not, and not falling victim to becoming a part of the charade, or not passing along things that are untrue even in the attempt to debunk them. I think that it’s taken us a long time to adjust to the Trump era, but that’s one thing that I think we’ve gotten better at: you know, just because the president said something doesn’t mean you need to tell everybody he said it if it’s not true. I think I would say we’ve done a good job. I mean, the election aftermath is not over, but so far, I think we’ve done a much better job at sort of understanding our role, which is to tell people what’s true and not just tell people everything somebody said.
Talia Stroud: Thanks for that. Mr. Rather, let’s go to you next.
Dan Rather: I suspect there’ll be no surprise, but I do think that the press—which is a word I prefer to media, but I understand why media is used here—has done an increasingly good job over the last three or four years.
And I think, overall in the main, they deserve high marks. It hasn’t been perfect, but part of explaining journalism to people is that journalism is not an exact science. It’s a kind of crude art even on its best days. But I think the media deserves, overall in the main, high marks. And I would say, especially, some of the larger media institutions—Washington Post, the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and USA Today to some degree. And, the major networks, obviously ABC, NBC, and CBS, they’ve done a pretty good job. I think they deserve at least a B-plus or an A-minus, I will give him a full A, because for one thing, there has been a renewal of really important investigative reporting. This was the Times and the Washington Post. I mean, give them both a double Pulitzers or whatever because they and their management has financed that and stood behind that reporting. This is a really major thing and I would say that’s the main reason I’d give the media overall at least a B-plus or A-minus.
Talia Stroud: Excellent. Ms. Neville, what about you?
Arthel Neville: I agree with what Mr. Rather says, and I don’t really have much to add to that.
Talia Stroud: Next topic: in 2020 we saw protests against police brutality across the country and important national conversation about race. What do you think the media’s role should be in this conversation and do you think that they achieved it? Mr. Rather you’ve covered and written about issues of race. Let’s start with you.
Dan Rather: Well, I’m not sure that I understand the direction of the question, but I understand the subject. Is the question one of what we should be doing?
Talia Stroud: What should the media be doing in this conversation and have they achieved what they should be doing?
Dan Rather: Well, I think it’s true of all the subjects with journalists, but particularly this subject, we need to listen. We need to listen to the voices, particularly voices in, how do we describe them? Communities of color? I don’t like that phrase, it is an awkward phrase, but to listen, there’s no question that the press has gotten better, but it’s still heavily weighted toward white America, which remains the majority of the country. But the demographics are shifting so much. So number one, we need to listen more particularly, to go into the communities where people of color tend to be centered sometimes, and go into those communities and sit and listen.
And to continue to try to understand that within a given minority community, there’s great diversity. For example, to say that black America, black Americans, isn’t enough anymore. There are great differences in black America, and that’s true with the Latinx community and the Asian community and down the line. I frankly think that the diversification in the hiring of people of color is not nearly what it could be and should be in journalism, to say the least, but I do think that there’s still a tendency. And again, I do not except myself from this criticism to be a little reluctant to report the truth as we know it to be in such areas, and it’s just one example, in the criminal justice system there is a need for really deep and widespread reform in the criminal justice system. And anybody who’s been a cub reporter and covered the police knows what happens at the police station after midnight on Saturday night, knows what happens in the worst of prisons, but there’s still a reluctance to bring it out into the sunlight, to use the metaphor. And those are among the things I think we have to get busy doing, but nothing greater than listening to the voices in the country and understanding how greatly the demographics of the country have changed over the last 50 to 75 years.
Talia Stroud: Thank you for that. Ms. Neville, what would you add?
Arthel Neville: I think beginning with the horrendous, horrific killing of Mr. George Floyd, I believe that the media have done a good job of bringing those images into people’s homes, because I think for the first time it became real and it came at a time when people were stuck inside, they were glued to the television. They were reading too, of course, but you know, more and more people were watching the news. And so for those images to be seared into people’s mind, I think it’s snapped a lot of people into realizing, wait a minute, this is real, this is a problem. So for instance, but the way to cover this, you know, there’s so many complexities involved, and the way to cover it, of course is responsibly.
And here’s an example. I had Mr. Floyd’s brother, Philonise, and his cousin and their attorney, Mr. Crump, on. I made sure to get them and I was happy to bring them to my particular audience and I spoke to them, and again, it’s about bringing up the human side. And when people see that, wait a minute, this guy is grieving for his brother. And what I did not get into is, you have to be careful, you know, oftentimes people want to get into someone’s background that had nothing to do with what happened at that particular moment. And that’s where you focus. What I also made sure to get Mr. Floyd’s brother to repeat on air, because he said it when I had already spoken to him. I know what his sentiment was. And I said, so you are not calling for to defund the police. Correct? And he says, no, I am not calling for that. So what is the purpose behind that? It is to cut down on the confusion and the disinformation and that right there is to calm down the flames and the tension, you know, because people wanted to label it. It’s all about labels and you have to be very careful and methodical and to make sure that you are not contributing to that and that, you know, our job is to provide clarity. And I think that when things are clear, thoughts are clear, intentions are clear enough, of course they want justice, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But as long as intentions are made clear, again, I feel that that calms down the fires that were literally burning and figuratively burning. So I’m not sure if I answered your question, but that’s kind of what popped into my mind in terms of that coverage.
Talia Stroud: Really helpful. Mr. Fahrenthold would you add anything?
David Fahrenthold: It’s all well said, I have nothing to add.
Talia Stroud: Okay. I’d like to turn to a couple of questions about the media: at one point or another, all of you have been criticized by President Trump. What effect do you think that this criticism has had on you or on the journalism profession at large? Mr. Fahrenthold, let’s start with you. What do you think?
David Fahrenthold: Well, I think the first thing to know is if you’re criticized by the President, you shouldn’t think that you are special. I mean, there’s not a lot of reporters out there who haven’t been criticized by him directly or indirectly. So to me, the times when he’s been critical of me personally, it’s a good opportunity because it brings people’s attention to you, and you can use that to sort of show people, look, here’s who I am. Here’s what I’m writing about. Here’s what I’ve done to try to capture President Trump’s perspective. You know, here’s all the things that I’ve done to try to capture his voice and to sort of give him a chance to say his piece. The danger, I think, is just that you don’t want the story to be about him and the idea that there’s some sort of feud between you. I’ve been okay with the attention that I’ve gotten, but I haven’t wanted to make it into something where I’m feuding back and forth with him or continuing some sort of relationship, because it’s not really about that. You know, he’s the President, I’m just some guy. But I’m here to tell what matters is what I’ve found out, what I’m here to tell you. It’s not really about, you know, my personality and any sort of relationship I have with him.
Talia Stroud: Ms. Neville, what would you say?
Arthel Neville: I think that it says you’re doing your job—which is not to attack the President, not to protect the President, but to report on the President and to be fair. You know, the trolls come after you but so what; that’s part of it in this day of social media, but it just again says I’m doing my job and I’m going to keep doing what I’m doing.
Talia Stroud: And you, Mr. Rather?
Dan Rather: Well, it was always important to keep in mind what my journalism professor back at Sam Houston State teacher’s college in 1950 always drilled in our head, which is don’t let them scare you. And you know, anytime you get under attack and let’s face it, if you do quality, integrity work in the field of journalism, sooner or later, you’re going to be under attack. And while it’s kind of a smart aleck remark, there’s some truth to the old saying that if you’re in journalism, and you want a friend, you better get a dog because if you do your job, as you should be doing it, sooner or later, you’re going to catch hell. And naturally if you cover the President in any way, even on the periphery, even aged, worn out, anchor people covering him, you have to understand that sooner or later you’re going to catch hell, or may I put it as sooner or later, you’re going to have to face the furnace and take the heat. But I’ll get back to what we said earlier. You just do your job. Don’t let them scare you, and constantly try to send by word and deed to the people who are consuming your news, news consumers, that you’re trying to do your job. You’re trying to be fair. I sometimes say to people, which is true, that I’m not left wing. I’m not right wing. I’m not chicken wing. I’m out there as a working reporter, doing the best I can.
Talia Stroud: This is an interesting segue into my next question for you, which is all of you and the organizations for which you work have been accused of being biased and favoring either the political right or the political left, and on some occasions, both. How do you handle these accusations, and do you think there’s a problem of political bias in journalism today? Mr. Rather, can you start us off?
Dan Rather: Well, first of all, here’s where I’m going. I don’t think we’ve done as good a job as we could have done and should be doing in explaining what it is we’re trying to do as journalists. What is it that we think we’re doing? It’s very important to explain that to people and then people can make their own decisions on how well or how poorly they think we’re doing it. You know, most journalists overwhelmingly think that what we are trying to do is get to the truth or as close to the truth as humanly possible. And to tell it now, that’s what we set out to do. And the second thing is in the course of doing that, it’s not humanly possible to squeeze out your biases. We all have them. Totally, completely, every day on every story. But one test of how good of a journalist one is, is how hard they try to do that and how often they succeed. We don’t do a good enough job explaining that. That again, anytime that you do the kind of quality journalism that includes investigative reporting, for example, and the higher you go, whether it’s the mayor or the governor or the President, the higher you go, the more you’re going to be accused of having bias. It just goes with the territory, but I do think it’s important to acknowledge that none of us are without bias and we expect to be judged. I expect to be judged and every other quality journalist I know expects to be judged of how often we do the job fairly or as fairly as humanly possible and to succeed in squeezing out our own biases. But I do think that there is a great difference between bias and being analytical. We may want to touch on this later on in the broadcast: schooling, if you will, educating the public to the difference of what we might call straight journalism analysis, commentary, opinion, and editorial. Those are different roles that different journalists perform. Sometimes the same journalists will perform their different roles in different times, but explaining that to people, we haven’t done a very good job of doing it, but you know, there’s a saying among football coaches, you are what your record is. And I think for most of us, when we face these charges of being biased, if you’ve been around any length of time at all, the best thing is to say “look at my record. Here’s my record. You make a judgment of whether you think that I’ve tried to be fair or not.”
Talia Stroud: Great sentiment. Ms. Neville, what would you add?
Arthel Neville: Well, you know, I always say that we’re human beings. So you have a perspective, you’ve lived life. So as far as not being objective, you do have a perspective, but that doesn’t matter. What matters is to be fair.
Talia Stroud: Fantastic. Mr. Fahrenthold, what would you add?
David Fahrenthold: I always worry about people who come to the Washington Post for the first time. You know, we’re lucky enough that somebody who hasn’t read us or doesn’t read us regularly comes to the Washington Post. The concern I have about biases: are we doing something that drives that person away? You know, when they come to us to read a particular story, come to our homepage, do they see something there where they go, “well, these people are out to skew the news for one side or another?” Or when they read our news, do they understand how hard we work to make sure that we got the full truth? So, I am concerned obviously about going into stories, asking the wrong questions or looking for the wrong answer, but I also am concerned about showing it to people. How do we make sure that when people come to us for the first time that we don’t do something that drives them away because they think that we’re out to prove a point instead of just to tell the truth?
Talia Stroud: Thank you for that. The ideas of transparency here are really, really interesting. I want to do one rapid fire round here, if we might, and then we’ll continue with our program tonight. Each of you use social media in different ways or have encouraged others to do so. And I’ll offer some examples. Mr. Rather, the post that has garnered the most engagement from you over the past six months was one tweet that read “Dude. You lost.” Mr. Fahrenthold, in your book, “Uncovering Trump: The Truth behind Donald Trump’s Charitable Giving,” you describe asking the public to help you with your reporting via Twitter. Ms. Neville, you have reported that some Americans are ignoring social distancing guidelines and introduced a slogan that I think is worth repeating: “Don’t roam, stay at home.” I’m hoping that I can turn to each of you to get your reactions on what is the role of social media in journalism these days. And Mr. Rather if I could start with you.
Dan Rather: Well, the role is reaching widespread dissemination almost instantaneously. This is what is contributing to changing journalism as we talked about, as we opened the program with the changes in journalism. With the internet, you reach more people with more content than has ever been possible before. And there’s acceleration of the pace of change that has necessitated all kinds of changes for journalists. One of which you just need a premium on the internet and, I didn’t make these rules, but if you’re going to be on the internet and particularly in social media, one of the rules is that you need to be quick. You need to be short and pithy if possible, and you need to be careful because a mistake, particularly a mistake of fact, would flash around the world—and saying the truth has a hard time catching up with it, is true. I do think that the following is true and it’s open to debate, but, this is my own opinion: If you’re in journalism today being on social media to some degree, it’s not an option, and that if you want to be relevant, if you want your work to be relevant, even on the faint far edges as is the case of my own, then it’s not a choice that you have to be on the internet and the quicker you get on it the better you understand what works and what doesn’t work. The temptation, and I’ll wind up with this because we could spend the rest of the evening talking about this one subject at ease. The temptation is so great, the premium is on how many clicks you get, how many people respond to what you do. And there’s an enormous undertow to play to that, instead of saying what’s important, what’s the most important thing I can write about what I can put up. You begin to think what’s going to get the most clicks, and that’s a very dangerous road for any journalist. Of course, in previous generations, and to some degree, we still have, well, if you’re a newspaper, what’s going to raise the circulation. Those conversations have been going on at newspapers forever. I’m sure David, the Washington Post, high caliber as it is, nobody talks about circulation, but in most of journalism, people are concerned about the circulation of the ratings. But to the extent that it’s pervasive with the social media and the internet, it’s a danger for every journalist, including this one to say to yourself, well, you know, I haven’t done anything in the last few days that got a lot of clicks, so what’s going to get the most clicks instead of what’s the most important thing I can contribute.
Talia Stroud: Fantastic. Mr. Fahrenthold?
David Fahrenthold: To me, I use social media as a way to show readers what I’m doing, to be transparent about the reporting process. Here’s what I’m trying to find out. Here’s what I don’t know. Here’s what I do know. And to ask their help, which surprisingly works, it works much more often than you think. It surprised me even this year after I’ve been using it for a few years. If you ask for something that seems completely impossible, it doesn’t always work, but there are times when your readers really surprise you. And to me, the key to doing that has been to just make my social media presence about my reporting and my stories. It’s not about me or my opinions or my pop culture knowledge, which are completely uninteresting, as uninteresting as they could possibly be, more uninteresting than the average journalist. I just don’t do that stuff because people aren’t interested in it and I want people when they come to my Twitter feed to see what I’m doing and to be drawn back to the story. If I’ve got you as an audience, I want to sort of picture my readers as swirling around in a tornado of news and opinion, misinformation, disinformation. And if you’ve managed to grab onto my story once, how can I give you a way to hold onto that thread and follow it? Follow it forward in time to what I’m going to do next. Follow it back to what I’ve done before. And if you fly off in the tornado and come back again, how can I help you catch up? So to me, that’s what social media is. It’s a way to let people follow the thread and hang on to my thread, even as the tornado swirls around them.
Talia Stroud: I like that metaphor. Ms. Neville, what would you add?
Arthel Neville: I don’t use social media to really share my reports. My experience with social media is that it’s a sewer for trolls, and so I don’t really care what they think. And so therefore I don’t invite their opinions, so I don’t really participate. And if I do Tweet a link, for instance, it’s again with a scientist or something that has nothing to do with politics and no one can sit there and either try to figure out what I’m thinking or something that’s going to be divisive because I don’t want that. That’s not what I’m here for. And so also what I do mainly is, I really don’t do a lot of tweeting. Mainly I do the other stuff. It’s just to show the kind of fun I’m having as a person. I feel like if you get to know me, the more you get to know me as a person, you’ll realize again, that I have no hidden agendas. And that’s the main thing that I want people to know. And I’ll end on this quote that I wrote several years ago and it still stands. It speaks to, again, it gives you an idea of who I am, which is what I bring. And we said earlier how we do have a perspective, we’re not completely objective, but what I bring to my reporting is my love of people and my desire for people to be together. And the quote that I wrote is “lead the race to share similarities and embrace differences.”
Talia Stroud: Wonderful. I love that. That is a fantastic quote. We’re now going to turn to two undergraduates at the University of Texas. Jimena Pinzon is a third-year journalism student and an undergraduate research assistant at the Center for Media Engagement from Frisco, Texas. She works with the propaganda team focusing on disinformation and geolocation data used for the surveillance of protests. Natalie Deller is a senior from Corpus Christi, Texas, studying political communication and government at the University of Texas. She has worked on various projects at the center over the past year, most recently, on our research on coronavirus coverage. I will turn it over to the two of you.
Jimena Pinzon: Thank you for the introduction. Mr. Fahrenthold, our first question is for you. What was the difference in covering Trump’s business deals in 2020 versus 2016, and did the stakes change?
David Fahrenthold: The biggest difference for me in 2020 versus 2016 was it was harder in 2016. I was mostly writing about Trump’s dealings with charity, his promises to give to charity, the times he used charity money. And, you know, he wouldn’t tell me anything about that. So I was reliant on public documents and on other people who might have had some contact with him and in the charity world. There actually were a lot of those other sources. Charities have to file tax documents. So you could see the internal finances of his Trump charity. And also, every dollar he gave, everything he bought with charity money, was bought from somebody else. Those people, not always but a lot of the time, would talk to me when I called. Fast forward to 2020, I’m not writing about Trump’s business so much, about his individual business, as his business dealings with both the government, his government, and other businesses. Those are much harder nuts to crack because those are folks who have obviously some ongoing loyalty to Trump and some ability to benefit from him. So it took a lot more work to try to make sources in that world and a lot more use of the freedom of information act process. That was the real savior for us in 2020 was we found the FOIA system to get information about Trump’s federal government’s spending at Trump properties. And then we basically learn how to fight the FOIA system to actually get the documents we wanted. So it was a big success that we got what we wanted seven months after we asked for it. And that took a lot of effort to get there. So the biggest change from 2016 to 2020 was that the sources got a lot harder. But the stakes to me only got higher because now we were talking about not how Trump used other people’s money, but how he’s using our money, how he was using taxpayer money without us knowing it.
Jimena Pinzon: Well, thank you for your insight.
Natalie Deller: The next question is for you, Mr. Rather. You have said that propaganda is spreading faster than mildew in a damp basement. How does the spread of propaganda look different this year, given the pandemic election and election period and protests?
Dan Rather: Well, first of all, it’s unique in my experience and what we’ve gone through this year with the twin terrors of the pandemic and the severe economic drop, those two things of course are related, that never before in my experience has there been a president, and I’ve been involved in one way or the other, trying to cover presidential politics since at the very latest, 1954-56, in which you had a president who relentlessly and constantly dealt in outright lies. I’m one of those people that have difficulty using the word “lie.” At least I used to, because it’s such a harsh word, but it’s apt given the consistency with which the president has lied. There are many days when he would tell 20 or 30, 40 lies in one day as way of underscoring propaganda, that it was constant, unrelenting and it came from the President. And one of the powers of the presidency is the power to persuade. The sheer power of the office gives any president a great deal of power to persuade. So it was unique in that regard. And to tell you the truth, I was surprised, maybe I shouldn’t have been, even though we’d been through a lot with President Trump, since he came first into office, to lie about something serious as a pandemic. Well that word “unprecedented” certainly comes into play with that. And the President’s allies in the press, there’s no joy in saying this, that he has allies in the press who served to be just conveyor belts for his propaganda. The combination of that led to a second surprise, which is how effective it became that I don’t think ever a majority of the American people perhaps never succumbed completely to the propaganda, but a higher percentage than I would have ever thought possible—maybe 35 or 40% of people have fallen in line. And then the third point, of course, is how dangerous this is to spread propaganda about something as serious as a coronavirus. You know, my own opinion clearly is that this kind of leadership from the top cost lives and costs a lot of lives and to be perfectly candid with you, I’ve yet to quite get over the shock and the outrage that that’s engendered.
Natalie Deller: Thank you so much for your insights.
Jimena Pinzon: Ms. Neville, how has broadcast journalism adapted to the 2020 tsunami of information? And in what ways has this year been different from other years in your career?
Arthel Neville: It’s true. The amount of misinformation and disinformation is very disheartening. It’s disturbing, it’s damaging to our democracy. So you have to do your job, and that is to stay focused, to keep the blinders on and deal with the truth.
Jimena Pinzon: Thank you.
Natalie Deller: And this last question for the student segment is for all of you: what advice would you give UT student journalists who are entering the journalism professional world today? And we’ll go ahead and start with you, Mr. Fahrenthold.
David Fahrenthold: My advice is to think of about your audience, always. I talked about sort of how your readers or your viewers, whoever you’re trying to reach are, lost in this tornado of, you know, good news, bad news, fake news, and opinion. If they find you, think about how to keep hold of them. And that’s part of your job too, in addition to reporting the news, covering the beat, you’re on making sure that folks who care about what you care about can follow the thread of your reporting and can keep following it. Think about that in terms of the way you write your stories, write them iteratively. So you tell them a little bit at a time to keep people interested, but also in how you use social media. Just be so conscious that you can never count on the fact that if people read you once and go away that they’ll come back and read you again. You have to work to keep them.
Natalie Deller: Thank you so much for that. And we’ll go on to you, Ms. Neville.
Arthel Neville: Be curious. And learn the basics. So it doesn’t a matter if you want to be an entertainment reporter, a health reporter, a political reporter, you have to be a reporter. So learn how to be that first and foremost. And if you’re getting into it for some sort of grandiose reason of wanting to be a star or something like that, or wanting to be on TV, wanting attention, don’t do it because it’s disingenuous and you’re going to make horrible mistakes and decisions, and somewhere along the line, you’re going to compromise your integrity. You never compromise your integrity. And, again, I’ll go back to the top. When I say, be curious, I mean, you want to know as much as you can about a lot of things, you see, because that is what’s going to broaden your base and fortify your arsenal of information and knowledge, and that comes across in your comfort level of what it is you’re doing now. You’re not going to be so confident walking out the gate, but you’re going to learn the foundation. And I got the basics down there at UT you know, that’s where I went to journalism school. That’s where I graduated from. So, again, learn the basics.
Natalie Deller: Thank you so much for that advice. And lastly, you Mr. Rather.
Dan Rather: Well, I agree with what’s been said before and let me pause and say that I’m really honored to be in the program with two outstanding journalists such as has been the case tonight. And I’ve learned a lot here tonight, but an answer to your question, advice to young journalists, it always begins and ends with me, the saying, dedicate yourself to becoming as good a writer as you possibly can. Writing is the bedrock of the craft, no matter whether it’s television or radio or whatever, and also writing teaches you to think, particularly analytical thinking. So it’s always about the writing with me when it comes to advice to young journalists, no matter how good a writer you think you are, and all of us sort of come out of school, journalism school, thinking we’re pretty damn good writers and until we get into the field and realize how much we have to learn. But if you dedicate yourself to a lifetime of always trying to improve yourself as a good writer, you can do pretty well in the profession. The second thing is don’t lose your idealism. Most people get into journalism because they’re particularly idealistic. It’s such a tough craft, particularly in the early years when you’re trying to get established that it’s very easy to become cynical. Well, you can be skeptical, but never cynical, but I’d just say don’t lose your idealism. And don’t forget that hearts can inspire other hearts with their fire and you, even as a beginning journalist, your enthusiasm and your idealism will serve you very well, but it also can be contagious and therefore, a credit to your craft.
Talia Stroud: At the Center for Media Engagement, we’re dedicated to figuring out how the media can better serve its role in a democracy. And this conversation, we hope, will help all of us. Think about this more deeply. If you’d like to learn more about our work, we’d love for you to check on our website and social channels. Although this format does not allow us to applaud for our panelists, I’m certain that we would be applauding them for their insights and thanking them for spending this evening with us. And thank you to all of you for taking the time to think about journalism and the media and this important year on behalf of the Center for Media Engagement in the Moody College of Communication at the University of Texas at Austin, I send you all our best for health and happiness, and again, our deepest thanks.