Distinguished TV journalist Dan Rather described himself as lifetime reporter not only from Texas but "of Texas" to a packed house at The University of Texas-Pan American Fine Arts Auditorium Feb. 13.
Rather addressed students, faculty and community members as the third speaker in this academic year's Distinguished Speakers Series.
Still looking fit and strong of voice at age 75, Rather reflected on his beginnings in a business where he called himself lucky and how journalism had changed over the years from his start at a small radio station in Huntsville, Texas while going to college at then Sam Houston State Teacher's College.
"I am humbled that I have been so blessed and lucky to be in journalism for as long as I have and that I have been able to live my dream," said Rather, who has won numerous accolades for his work including Emmy and Peabody awards.
Rather, who first went to Afghanistan in 1980 during the Soviet invasion of the country, told local reporters at a press conference that there are great differences between Iraq and Afghanistan and predicted that 2007 would be a particularly bloody and expensive year for Afghanistan.
"In the long sweep of history, what happens in Afghanistan may be even more important to U.S. national security and peace and stability in the world than what happens in Iraq," he said.
Another situation, Rather said, that is especially threatening to U.S. national security is the increasing influence of the drug cartels in northern Mexico, calling it an underreported important story.
"There is a tendency to say 'it's Mexico, it's down there.' But, what happens in Mexico affects everyone in the United States," he said.
To a question about his use over the years of colorful, often folksy analogies and descriptions during live broadcasts, that have come to be called "Ratherisms," Rather said they stemmed from growing up in Texas around people who talked that way.
"My father worked with his back and his hands all his life in the oil fields. It made the day go easier if you didn't describe things the same old way every time. For example, you can say 'the boss is mad' but it gives everyone a little smile if you say 'the boss is as mad as a rained-on rooster,'" the Wharton, Texas native said.
The Distinguished Speaker Series is funded by student fees with the goal of bringing prestigious speakers offering different world view perspectives to help educate and inspire students. During a private dinner with a group of student leaders and University administrators, Rather was able to share a bit of his story on how he became a journalist and where the future of media is headed before fielding questions.
Rather discussed with students the role of journalism in politics. He said journalists are a part of the "system of checks and balances" for the country as well as its watchdog.
"What does a good watchdog do? A good watchdog barks at everything that is suspicious ... A watchdog is not an attack dog," he said. "Despite what some people will have you believe, this is my opinion, the greater danger is not that the press in its watchdog role will become an attack dog, the greater threat is that it will become a lapdog."
He also touched on how the Internet has changed the way the public gets its news. While Rather said he was bullish on use of the Internet in news reporting, he worries about its lack of accountability and said as the world dives deeper into the Internet era, a new definition for "news" will have to be identified.
"We need to redefine who is and who isn't a journalist, and what is a journalist," he said. "I will come straight out at you and be candid and I would prefer that this not nail me as yesterday's man, but about this I am a little old fashioned. Not everybody who has some information and puts it out is a journalist or at least in my opinion is worthy of the name journalist."
Before his remarks and a question and answer session at his public presentation to an audience of more than 700, Rather asked for a moment of silence to honor the contributions and sacrifices of the men and women in uniform in Iraq and Afghanistan. Rather, who has covered combat at the front lines from Vietnam to Iraq, several times choked back emotion when talking about covering American troops and his other significant life experiences.
Rather said his career started in an institution very much like UTPA where a lot of students were the first in their families to attend college. His parents, he said, never got an education beyond the ninth grade but recalled that his father was an avid reader of newspapers, calling them a "poor man's University" and instilled in Rather the idea that news was important. That coupled with growing up hearing world-renown journalist Edward R. Murrow's "This is London" reports during the London blitz in World War II cemented his goal to be a great reporter.
"Radio became my best friend. His (Murrow's) reports were not only known for their news value but also for their immediacy, for the way they took the listener right into the heart of what was happening," said Rather, noting Murrow's coverage helped changed the course of history and showed Rather the power of great journalism.
"The news is the raw material of democracy. It is the best and sometimes only way for citizens to assess whether our elected leaders, our laws and our policies are serving our interests or not," he said.
"News of integrity often begins and ends with news owners who have guts," he said.
Rather ended his talk by giving the audience the best definition of news that he has found and encouraging continued interest by people, especially young people in current events and public life.
"News is something that you the public needs; it is something that is important for the public to know which someone, somewhere, most often a powerful person doesn't want you to know. That's news, all the rest is advertising," he said. "Consider your news sources with care. Demand accuracy and truth from your news and from your elected leaders. Don't be afraid, as too many of us journalists have become, of asking the tough questions. In a democracy, questioning authority is the purest form of patriotism."
For Elvis Cavazos, a senior majoring in chemistry, meeting Rather at the dinner was very exciting and something he will always remember. He said he was amazed at how someone of Rather's stature was so down to earth and approachable.
"I really enjoyed the fact that he is from Texas and that he has not lost any of that Texan mentality and I really enjoyed learning that after traveling the world he still identifies himself as a Texan rather than a citizen of the world or a member of the global community," Cavazos said.
The Weslaco native said he appreciated hearing Rather's own personal stories and his views on journalism and the direction the country is heading.
"I guess the main lesson I learned was to do the things you want to do and to not let anyone, no matter their position or your position, affect your decision in life," Cavazos said.