Dan Rather Sounds Off on Fox News: ‘The Closest We’ve Come to State-Run Media’
The former CBS Evening News anchor sat down with Marlow Stern to discuss his new CRISPR documentary ‘Human Nature,’ the media, and Trump’s chances in 2020.
The last time I spoke with Dan Rather feels like a lifetime ago. It was December 2015—six months into the presidential campaign of Donald J. Trump, a man who sold mail-order steaks at The Sharper Image. The former reality-TV personality had just announced his infamous “Muslim ban,” in his words “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States,” and the legendary CBS Evening News anchor was aghast.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” muttered the grizzled newsman, “and neither has anyone else that’s alive today, because there’s never been anything like it.”
Well, we are now past the midway point of President Trump’s first term, and Rather seems a bit more hopeful—not because of current crop of 2020 contenders but rather CRISPR-Cas9, the groundbreaking gene-editing technology that has the potential to revolutionize modern medicine. With CRISPR, scientists can potentially rework DNA sequences to treat a number of diseases, such as cancer, cystic fibrosis, Huntington’s, sickle cell, and heart disease.
“Scientists told us, ‘People have theoretically worried about this for a long time … but now it’s real,’” says director Adam Bolt. “We’re going to be seeing things in the next few years that push the boundaries, and we need to start having conversations about it now.”
Bolt is the director of Human Nature, a new documentary on CRISPR that premiered at SXSW and is produced by Rather and his right-hand man, Elliott Kirschner. The film does a fine job laying out the arguments for and against this cutting-edge technology, from treating genetic-based diseases to engineering biological supersoldiers who fight without pain or fear.
And at 87, Rather is as sharp as ever. In addition to producing documentaries, the news veteran hosts the hour-long talk series The Big Interview on AXS TV, and his measured, cogent takes have become wildly popular on Facebook. I’m seated across from Rather in his native Texas during SXSW—a conference and festival that’s transformed into an important stop for political candidates.
“You could make the argument that SXSW has become the new Iowa,” Rather tells me. It’s just one of many topics—from Fox News to 2020—we touch on over the course of our chat.
How did you get involved with this documentary, and with CRISPR?
I’ve never been particularly good at science but always interested in it, and wanted to do a series of interviews with leading scientists. That took me and Elliott [Kirschner] to one of the research arms at the University of California at Berkeley, and to Jennifer Doudna, who discovered CRISPR. I did an interview with her in September 2016 and then walked out of the interview and told Elliott, “This could be the biggest story of my time, because the historical arc of it will go for a very long time.” Then we got started on making a film about it, and I financed some of the beginning of it out of my own pockets, and out of my company News and Guts. Then we showed our footage around and got some more financing, including from some of the science foundations.
There’s a fascinating clip midway through the film featuring Vladimir Putin, where he calls gene editing “more terrifying than a nuclear bomb” and warns that the technology could create supersoldiers without fear and who feel no pain. And he raises a legitimate point—you could see despotic regimes exploiting this technology in such a way.
Completely. When I finished that interview with [Doudna] at Cal-Berkeley, I came away thinking the promise of it is terrific—curing disease, etc.—and on the other hand, there is the dark nature of it. It’s not unlike the splitting of the atom, which has tremendous upside—creating energy—and on the other hand could lead to the destruction of our world. But with the film, we wanted to get across how we, the public, need to have a conversation about this now. This thing is moving like a fast freight, and in your children’s lifetime the advances made in CRISPR and AI are going to be tremendous. The people at large need to know about this, they need to understand it, and the film presents the facts in a non-polemic way. We don’t have answers. What we do is post the question: Should this be allowed to go forward? And if it should, who’s going to draw up the rules for regulating it? And who’s going to enforce those rules? I believe it’s going to go forward whether we want it to or not, because the Chinese are already pushing well ahead.
And the film raises the interesting question of: If your child were born with a genetic disorder, you’d certainly want them to be cured.
You would say, listen, if you’ve got something to knock this out of the child, do it. But then the other question is, would you want an engineered great-grandchild? I’d say no. But that’s the kind of conversation that needs to take place.
Do you envision a religious backlash to CRISPR? Because there will inevitably be tons of articles that label this “Playing God.”
I’d be surprised if there isn’t some—maybe more than some—but it’s all the more reason to start that conversation now so we don’t shout at one another. We have a government right now which is in many ways anti-science, denying climate change, and is also cutting back on scientific research—particularly scientific research that’s not applied science. Jennifer [Doudna] didn’t start out trying to invent CRISPR, she was just trying to increase her knowledge of how DNA and genetics works. And that’s part of this discussion. We, the United States, are now the world’s only combined superpower—an economic superpower and a military superpower. If we are to remain that, we have to lead in science. It’s not an option. And I’m not sure people grasp that.
I’m in media of course, and watched you on the news growing up. I’m not sure if you’ve read Jane Mayer’s excellent New Yorker piece on Fox News but it essentially branded the network state-run media. What do you think about Fox News and how it’s tethered to the Trump White House?
I have. I have an opinion, but as the late Ed Murrow once said, when it comes to opinions, mine is no better than the guy at the end of the bar. But it’s a fact: This is the closest we have come to having state-run media. If someone wants to argue, “Well, it’s not state-run media”—which it virtually is—it’s certainly the closest we’ve ever come in this country to having a state-run media; a straight-up propaganda outlet. I do want to put a big asterisk on that: There are some good journalists working at Fox—Chris Wallace comes to mind—but if you look at it on the whole, particularly their primetime programming, you have the beginnings of a state-run media. I think it’s beyond that. By any objective analysis, this is by far the closest we’ve come to Radio Moscow.
There are also all these uncomfortable ties between Fox News and the Trump White House, like them hiring a number of former employees for administration positions—such as Bill Shine as White House communications director.
That’s why I say it’s undeniable that this is the closest we’ve come to state-run media, and I think it’s something we have to worry about. I could speak to you about this the rest of the afternoon, but in the beginning, one of the vital roles of the press in this country is to act as part of our system of checks and balances—that the founders of this country worried about having too much power in any particular section of government, and that’s why we have three separate branches of government. The whole idea of a “free press” versus a government-dictated one is the free press is constantly checking on power—they’re knocking on doors, constantly asking questions, doing deep-digging investigations.
Now, at the time of the Soviet Union, they had Radio Moscow, we’ve had Radio Beijing, so in authoritarian regimes that develop into dictatorial regimes, the state-run media becomes the only media. So I think it’s a time to worry, and a time for the public to ask the question: Do we want a state-run, state-sponsored, straight-up propaganda outlet? Fox News is not that far off.
As a veteran newsman, I’m curious what you think about the role CNN played in the 2016 presidential election. You have Fox News on one side and MSNBC on the other, and CNN does still occupy a space for some swing voters in the middle, and the way that they covered 2016 seemed rather irresponsible—employing a number of Trump-affiliated pundits, including one in Corey Lewandowski who was being simultaneously paid by the campaign; airing Trump rallies from start to finish, even televising an empty podium; and so on.
I’ll try to answer your question, but for a long time Jeff Zucker was a competitor of mine, and I consider myself a friend of Jeff’s, and I like him. And I think he himself has looked back on 2016 and said, “We made some mistakes”—and they have tried to fix those mistakes. But, and I’m not trying to defend him or CNN, candidate Trump represented something new on the political scene in his ability to command both social media and television. We’ve had candidates before who were able to command a great deal of television, but the command of social media and television, and the amount of free time given to Trump not just on CNN but everywhere, was unprecedented.
We learn as we go, and I hope what we learn with 2020—and I include myself in this, I’m not perfect—particularly television, and the press in general, tends to concentrate on the spectacle of a campaign, and that helps a candidate such as Trump. So moving into 2020, the more we can do to press candidates to put forward detailed plans will help. It’s one thing to say you’re against opioids and quite another to say what your plan is to deal with that crisis. We need to press candidates on their policies, and to dig down deep. We need to keep asking tough questions, and follow-up questions, and not let them do the old political side-shuffle, as well as deep-digging investigative reporting.
The very first presidential election I voted in was in 2004, when George W. Bush was re-elected. I was a sophomore in college at the time, and shocked by the result. I’ve given this a lot of thought, but do you think Trump is worse than Bush?
I’m gonna duck that question—and I’ll tell you straight-up, I’m ducking it—because I really haven’t thought of it in those terms. I do agree that with the George W. Bush presidency, number one, going into Iraq was a strategic mistake of historic proportions, and that combined with the economic crash, those two things happening under his watch, drag heavily down his standing. But the reason I’m taking a pass on the question is because we’re not finished with the Trump presidency. George W. Bush had two terms, and there were things you could point to—attacking AIDS in Africa, for example—that were good. President Trump has just passed two years of his first term, so we need to see the Trump years, however short or long they turn out to be, in their totality.
And who knows what the Mueller report will be, and who knows what’s ahead. But as we talk here today, Trump is going to be hard to beat in 2020. If he lasts through this presidency and if he runs, I find that a lot of people who don’t like him just assume that there’s no way he’s going to get a second term. To those people I would say: burned once, don’t get burned twice. People underestimated Trump in the 2016 election, and I think he’s going to be a lot tougher to beat in 2020 than people think.