ASPEN - Former CBS anchorman Dan Rather told an Aspen audience Tuesday that journalism has declined to such a point that it is time for the government to intervene.
Appearing at the Greenwald Pavilion as part of the Aspen Institute's McCloskey Speaker Series, Rather said "traditional journalism is under siege" and called for media reform to become an "immediate national priority."
"A democracy and free people cannot thrive without a fiercely independent press," he said.
Rather suggested that President Obama establish a commission on public media and independent reporting.
"I'm throwing it out there for what it's worth," he said.
Rather, 77, who left CBS Evening News in 2005 and the network in 2006, talked about his first radio job in Huntsville, Texas, where he cut his teeth at a 250-watt station that he called an "outhouse with an antenna sticking up."
From there, the self-described "lifetime reporter" worked his way up the ranks, breaking the news of John F. Kennedy's assassination from Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963. In 1981, he succeeded Walter Cronkite, who died earlier this month, as the anchorman for CBS Evening News.
Today, Rather runs and anchors his own news program, Dan Rather Reports, for HDNet.
"At my age and stage I've finally reached the point where I don't have to kiss up to anybody," he said. "What a wonderful feeling it is."
Even so, his talk emphasized what he believes is the erosion of quality journalism, because of the corporatization, politicization, and "trivialization" of news. Those three factors, Rather argued, have fueled the "dumbing down and sleezing up of news" and the decline of "great American journalism."
Likening media consolidation to that of the banking industry, Rather claimed that "roughly 80 percent" of the media is controlled by no more than six, and possibly as few as four, corporations.
The decline of newspaper jobs - at least 10,000 have been eliminated in the last 18 months- demonstrates the need for new media business models to "save the craft of journalism," Rather said.
"The newspaper business is in a free fall," he said.
To do nothing "but stand back and watch" is to risk losing talented journalists to other professions, Rather said.
"We have to help the slipping media and aid the new," he said, in reference to the Internet.
As for the Internet, its potential has hardly been tapped, Rather said, calling it one of the "great innovations."
Even so, he said he has concerns about online blogging and reporting, chiefly because of the lack of accountability.
"On the Internet, nobody wants censorship ... just put anything out there with no accountability."
Rather called on news outlets to look at themselves as "running a public trust," "to tell the truth without fear or favor," and "present news as straight as you possibly can."
Important news is not getting the coverage it warrants, Rather said, citing the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as two of the most neglected stories by the press.
"We have yet to have a true national debate about Afghanistan," he said, adding he expects the war to continue for seven to 15 years.
He added: "I am not saying we ought to get out, but we should have a national debate."
Rather did not discuss his predecessor, Cronkite, but he briefly touched on his fraud lawsuit against CBS.
Last week a New York judge reinstated part of the $70 million suit, which accuses the network of launching a biased investigation into his controversial 60 Minutes report about the military record of former President George W. Bush. The report, which aired in 2004, generated criticism about the authenticity of some documents used by Rather, and led to his termination from CBS.
"This is a lawsuit in which it will be two years in September," he said. "I am alone and by myself. I knew going into it that it would be a long, hard, expensive fight.
"We're coming up on two years. We're still standing, we're still fighting."