Dan Rather is a journalist and the former news anchor for the CBS Evening News. He is now managing editor and anchor of the television news magazine The Big Interview with Dan Rather on the cable channel AXS TV. He also contributed to CBS’s 60 Minutes.
How did you become a reporter?
I was very lucky. The only thing I can ever remember wanting to be was a reporter. I don’t know why that is. I think that was because both of my parents were avid news readers. The best I can guess is because they read newspapers, consumed newspapers, they discussed newspapers, and I guess in my small, very young mind, I must have decided that newspapers were important. When we played kid’s games when I was growing up, and kids would say I want to be an airplane pilot, I want to be an Indian chief, I always said I wanted to be a reporter, and I never varied from that. It never changed. So in that sense I’m very lucky. But in my time and place, the place was Texas and the time was the ’30s, being a reporter really meant being a print reporter. I was lucky as it turned out, it didn’t seem so at the time, but I had rheumatic fever as a child, which at that time was an incurable disease. Now it’s not. It was every mother’s nightmare, next to polio. As a result of that, my mother was ordered to put me to bed and keep me in bed, and I was in bed for the better part of two years.
How was that lucky?
This corresponded, the onset of rheumatic fever, with the start of World War II. So I was bedridden and glued to the radio. The radio was my constant companion. So I heard Edward R. Murrow, Eric Sevareid, these were then young correspondents speaking from faraway places with strange-sounding names, it was great for a kid – I was now 11, 12, 13, if anything that fertilized, nourished my desire to be a reporter. But I still wanted to be a print reporter.
How did you get your start?
I started hanging around newspapers, and nobody in my family had ever been to college, so college didn’t seem to be a possibility. But people who were in the newspaper business at the time that I hung around with, many of them did not have college educations. Some of them hadn’t even finished high school. But they said to me, Dan, your generation is going to have to have a four-year degree. I ended up going to a small teachers’ college. I would have stayed in newspapering except I was a very poor speller, which is a bad flaw to have. I was at the Houston Chronicle and the editor, who was a very kind man, said to me, Dan, I don’t think you’re going to make it because you spend all day pouring over the dictionary. It takes up too much time. So he put me in touch with somebody in radio.
What advice would you give young people who want to be reporters or news anchors?
I would say, number one, journalism is something you must burn with a hot, hot flame to do it and do it well. You have to ask yourself, am I prepared to dedicate my life to this, or do I think I could get to that point? The second thing is, writing is the bedrock of the craft. Anything in journalism – television, Internet, digital – you must learn to write because writing teaches you to thing. Learn to write well, clearly, direct and fast, if necessary. And dedicate yourself to constantly improving your writing. I’m still trying to improve my writing. I would say to anyone who wants to get into journalism, it can be a terrific life’s work, but it can be hell on relationships. To do it well, you’ve got to be dedicated to it, so birthdays, weddings, funerals, holidays, if big news breaks, you’ve got to go. And that makes it very tough to maintain relationships – friendships, romantic relationships, marriages. I’m not being negative, but this is one of the challenges.
How would you tell a kid to deal with a problem?
First, learn all you can about the problem. Become as informed as you can. The second thing, in my experience, persistence. Persistence is frequently underrated, particularly by younger people. The old adage is, don’t quit, just keep coming. Every obstacle can be overcome if you’re persistent.
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