In the Trump era, the news has become infinitely more divisive, confusing, and addictive. Whatever one's beliefs or political leanings, the swarms of notifications, sound bites, and updates that bombard us are so dizzying it can feel impossible to know where to look. Which is why we need Dan Rather, festival headliner and winner of this year's Texas Writer Award, more than ever.
Since the time of J.F.K.'s assassination, through his storied career as anchor for CBS News Tonight, to the present day, Rather has been one of the major voices of the news—the real news. In his new collection of essays, What Unites Us, he advocates for sanity and seeks common ground in a divided America. He has plenty of wisdom to share, especially about how to read the news.
How can Americans sort through the many overwhelming feeds of news they're exposed to every day?
There was a time, not too long ago, you could expect to tune into the evening news on one of the big three networks and get a pretty good feel on what was going on in the day. That's no longer the case, so you need to remind yourself it requires some work. It's very important to check a wide variety of places—not just find a place where you think they reflect your biases. This may be the most important part. And the news consumer today needs to be skeptical. Never cynical, but skeptical. Particularly when something is on social media.
Would you say that what we're experiencing socially and politically right now is unprecedented?
We are unquestionably in an unprecedented era. Not just for journalism but for our country as a whole. It does feel completely different. When people say to me, "This doesn't feel like anything we've been through before," my answer is, "Yes. It feels that way to you because that's the way it is." There's never been a presidency like this presidency. There has been so much chaos, even dysfunction. Facts are not debatable. Water does not run uphill. And yes, two and two equals four. There's no alternative fact to that.
Social media has played such a huge role in political life. Lately, you've started to use it much more heavily. How do you feel about President Trump's use of social media?
President Trump is our first totally social media president. President Obama experimented with it. Franklin Roosevelt was our first radio president—there was radio before Franklin Roosevelt came into office, but he marshaled radio to further his political agenda. Kennedy was the first real television president. Television had been around before, but President Eisenhower didn't understand it, didn't like it. So Kennedy was the first television president. Now, Trump is our first through-and-through social media president. His Twitter offerings have very often set the news agenda for any given day, any given week, any given month.
In such a polarized time, what do you hope readers will take away from What Unites Us?
The book is not meant to provide answers. My hope is to start and keep going a conversation—including a conversation about what, in the second decade of the 21st-century, patriotism is. I think there are core values in the United States in which the overwhelming majority still believes. Things like the right to vote, the right to dissent, free press, and the rule of law. The national conversation has gotten in many ways so toxic, and we're so divided over so many things. Not enough people stop to say, "I disagree with you about a hundred things, but can we find one thing or two things that we agree on? Common ground?