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Dan Rather on how social media has changed TV news: 'A deadline every nanosecond'

There are certain people that you need to know about and read about to really help you understand what the TV in social TV really means. Dan Rather, who will turn 81 this October, was CBS Evening News’ anchor for 24 years. He not only understands the greatness of TV but helped define it by capturing our nation’s most pivotal moments for decades. We reviewed his new book, “Rather Outspoken: My Life in the News” and interviewed him about his career in TV and the impact of social media.

If you want a deep understanding on how TV literally changed the course of American history over the last fifty years, read his book. The role TV played in Rather’s reporting from interviewing Martin Luther King Jr. to endless presidents paints a clear picture of how TV became the mass medium it is today that complements the social web. Here are some highlights from the book followed by our interview.

“Anyone who’s worked with me will tell you that I’m a telephone person (as contrasted with an email person, which I surely am not)”:

Rather jokes about not being a digital native in the first chapter when he describes how his news team uncovered the terrible abuse on Abu Ghraib in Iraq. While Rather might not have the highest Klout score, he consistently points out the role the internet played throughout the major reporting he did throughout his time at CBS.

Almost every unit that had come home from Iraq had its own website, a place where friends could post comments – a place where we could troll for names to contact about possible arrests, etc.”:

When hitting a dead end at trying to find proof of the Abu Ghraib abuse, he points out how important the communities of army units online were in identifying new sources that would speak up.

“By April 2004, we were already well into the age of digital cameras and cell phones that could take pictures. There are a lot of smart people in the Pentagon. Did it not occur to anyone at DOD that other copies of the photos were out there”:

Regarding photos, he details how silly the Pentagon was for not realizing something like this would be leaked. He points out how afterwards personal cameras were banned within the army as well to prevent soldiers from sharing across the web.

“The Internet has played a larger and larger role in all of these incidents. Efforts by fringe groups to smear and discredit via innuendo and outright falsehood generate their own counterfeit credibility by endless online repetition, creating a digital echo chamber that reverberates through the partisan grapevine until someone in the legitimate media is foolish enough to pay attention.”

He points out how easy the internet can destroy news when used falsely. In this particular case he’s describing the outcry that happened regarding the papers he and his team uncovered about George W. Bush’s Air National Guard service record. He points out that the real disservice the internet caused in this case was drawing attention to the papers while ignoring the truth.

“One night, Levy told me, ‘Dan, television is the thing of the future; this is where the opportunities are. You would be good at it and you really should give them a call.’ I confess I was a little slow to appreciate the importance of TV, but KHOU was offering $10,200, and Jean and I were expecting another baby.”

Reading this, I instantly imagined the big executives that Twitter, Facebook, Google and more have snapped up from TV probably having the same debates with themselves. Is the social media industry the same new frontier that TV was in the late fifties?

“That September 1960 televised debate is arguably the beginning of a heady 15-year-period during which TV literally changed the course of American history.”

This must-read chapter detail the Kennedy-Nixon debate in 1960, which set the precedent for the hyped up TV debates we experience throughout each primary and election season.

Lost Remote: How do you think social media, Facebook, Twitter, however you want to define social media, has affected news today?

Dan Rather: I engage in social media, a Facebook page, a Twitter page and I’m not an expert on it. Now you have a deadline every nanosecond. And you don’t have time you used to have to reflect and to think things through. Never mind make telephone calls. It has shrunk as a result of social media. You can see this most clearly in what happens at even the best newspapers. Not so long ago a writer for The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal would have until three, three thirty in the afternoon, to make telephone calls, perhaps to think things through, to try to connect the dots. Today they are under great pressure to fly along what’s called multi-platforms. The home office wants something to Facebook, wants something to blog, wants him to be on Twitter, and beat the competition. It’s very common today for a reporter to get a phone call or a text from the home office saying, “our competition has X and you need to beat it in the next thirty seconds, preferably less.”

I think the other thing that has made a difference with the social media is that, I want to state this directly, but I want to do it carefully, that in so many minds, what’s on social media is what’s called news. Sometimes it’s news and other times it isn’t news because there’s a lot of blurring that if somebody sitting in their living room has a thought, fancy themselves a thought with Twitter or even a couple lines, a paragraph on Facebook it maybe just what’s in their head at that moment, but if it happens to strike a certain cord, it can go viral or something close to viral and so often is considered a fact or close to fact when it isn’t.

There is no misunderstanding that we are in the internet era. We went from the print era, to the radio era, to the television era. We are now in the internet era. I think overall in the whole development of the internet, including social media, has been for the good. Not just in terms of news, but in terms of information, which is sometimes different education.

LR: Do you personally use social media at all for research, for promoting your news program on HDNet?

Rather: We do use it, and I do use it. The collective we being here at Dan Rather Reports, our weekly news program and I use it. I don’t think you can be effective these days and not use it. I do think that you can get over focused. And I’m still trying personally to strike that balance of keeping up with what’s going on with social media and at the same time doing my legwork and telephone work as a reporter. But we do Facebook, we have a Facebook page for Dan Rather Reports. I contribute to that page regularly, daily, sometimes more than once a day, and we use Twitter as well. Yes we use it for promotional purposes, but I have found that if you use your Facebook page only for promotion or even mostly for promotion, people get over to it pretty quickly, and they either stop coming or they ignore it. So you have to give value for time spent.

And we also use for research, to try to stay abreast of what’s trending on Facebook, what’s trending with tweets. We use it for research, also for promotion and also as an outlet for material, and my example would be that, forgive the personal reference, but I came upon a story about a week ago about the specifics of Hugo Chavez, how serious the cancer is. A very advanced very aggressive form of cancer and spoke to someone who is in a position to know, who raised the possibility that Chavez could not last until the scheduled election in October. We’re a weekly news program. This happened, I can’t remember, I think on Thursday or Friday between programs. So, we wanted to get that information out. I thought it was an important story, not the greatest story in the world, but an important story. And we also have our competitive pressure so what do we do? We very quickly put something on Facebook and Twitter, while we’re getting something put together for AOL which was kind enough to print it, a short three paragraph story about it, and so it isn’t just research, it isn’t just promotion. We use social media as a way of getting out news.

LR: Is your show going to continue when HDNet turns into AXS?

Rather: HDNet was envisioned and brought into being by Mark Cuban, a well known and famous entrepreneur out of Dallas. He could see high definition television was incoming and so he started a network for high definition television. As the years have gone by, others have seen that vision and now high definition television is really common. So the uniqueness of his channel, there was a time four or five years ago when we were the only people, just about the only people doing consistent regular high quality high definition, but now a lot of people are doing it, and HDNet under Mark Cuban has grown.

When I came in and started he thought he had 2.75 million potential viewers. Didn’t mean they would all view it, but that was the universe, and it grew to be about 26 million which is a lot. He came to believe two things. One that the uniqueness of doing things even in high quality high definition, it passes, everybody has it. Two that while the growth, and I’m not talking just about our program, of his HD network as a whole had not leveled off. It was still growing, but in order to survive that we had to find the potential for a larger audience and therefore he decided to merge the company with Ryan Seacrest’s operation. He created a talent agency into AXS.

Mark Cuban has been dedicated to this program for which I’m very grateful to his dedication. He says we’re here for the foreseeable future. Also he’s said I can work here as long as I’m able to work here, but we all know that we have mergers and we are now in the midst of that transformation. The switchover from HDNet to new AXS television is now scheduled for July. I would say so far, so good. But you know I’ve been around journalism as almost literally a boy, for a long time and I know two things. First of all flexibility is the key to any success you can have, and the second is that every good and decent thing stands moment to moment in the ratings. There’s a danger and so it is with this program and the daily news that you have to fight for it everyday.

You can watch the full extended interview here:

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