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Watermelons, Washington, and What We Call News Today

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I must confess that until recently I had no idea what Twitter was. Even now, I'm not completely sure how it's best used. When I want to post something, the younger, more tech-savvy people in my office help me out. But I do know this: if you searched Twitter for "Dan Rather" over the past few days, you probably could guess why I feel the need to write this column.

It started this past Sunday when I appeared on Chris Matthews' syndicated talk show. I've known and respected Chris for many years and I enjoy doing his show. I take the train down from my home in New York to Washington D.C. and as I approach Union Station my thoughts often turn to the years I spent covering the Johnson and Nixon White Houses. It was a turbulent time for the country and a formative period for me as a reporter and a young father.

The Washington of that time was a far different place. In some ways it was better: less politically rancorous, more collegial. In many ways it, and the country it represented, was much worse. African Americans were still very much second-class citizens. Women held few positions of power. We smoked more, polluted our environment more, and accepted social mores that anyone who has seen Mad Men knows are embarrassingly outdated.

The news media was also different, so different in fact that I won't even try to enumerate all the changes. Many who are far smarter and more perceptive than I have written volumes about it. As with the country itself, there were some elements of the press that were better then and some that are better now. There were many more newspapers and they were healthy, full of enterprising reporting. The networks were flush with cash that they spent on their news divisions, supporting large staffs of journalists and bureaus across the country and around the world. Most of the bureaus have closed and the staff has been laid off.

Meanwhile, new forms of journalism have emerged that were unimaginable when I lived in Washington. The online and cable world has allowed a freer exchange of ideas and more access to news. People can scour the New York Times (or the Times of India for that matter) in real time around the globe. If someone reads a fascinating article he or she can share it easily with friends. When news breaks, eyewitnesses have a forum for relaying their observations and insights.

All this is the backdrop for what I said on the Matthews show. I was talking about Obama and health care and I used the analogy of selling watermelons by the side of the road. It's an expression that stretches to my boyhood roots in Southeast Texas, when country highways were lined with stands manned by sellers of all races. Now of course watermelons have become a stereotype for African Americans and so my analogy entered a charged environment. I'm sorry people took offense.

But anyone who knows me personally or knows my professional career would know that race was not on my mind. Reporting on the injustices of race was part of the reason I became a reporter. I grew up in segregated Texas on the same side of the tracks as the African American community. At the time, enlightened people called them Negros. Many people called them much worse. When I covered the Civil Rights movement, I saw sheer hatred in ways that still haunt and shock me. For doing my small part in reporting on the South in the 1960s, I was called a traitor to my roots and other names not fit for print. I was threatened with death by people who would have welcomed me to their church on Sunday on account of my white skin if they didn't know what I was there to do. I do not take this issue lightly.

I can understand why someone who just happened upon my comments could take offense or want clarification. But what has caused this comment to "go viral" is the trumpeting of an online and cable echo chamber that claims the banner of news but trades in gossip, gotcha, and innuendo. Furthermore, even for those who brook no prejudice, when everything is condensed to 140 characters or a small YouTube clip, many people who got this "news" did so without any context, just a headline that popped up on their phone or inbox.

I know that there are many people who are reading this who have preconceived notions about me. I am sure that the comments section will be filled with a gamut of First Amendment expressions. That is our precious right as Americans. Politics has always been part sport, and if my choice of language falls into the bloody heavyweight bout that has become life in Washington today, so be it. Chris' show is a fun, freewheeling political talk show and I enjoy coming to Washington to participate. Our republic has flourished because we as citizens can be provocative in our political discussions and challenge our leaders and our own assumptions. There is a time and place for this, but it can't be allowed to dominate what we call news.

What saddens me is what this experience has made all too clear. Much of what we call news, isn't. Much of what we Tweet, or post, or chat away at under the guise of news, are distractions.

While I appear on Matthews' show from time to time, that is not my day job. Together with a dedicated and talented staff, and under the unbending support of Mark Cuban, I put out a weekly news program on HDNet called Dan Rather Reports. If you want to see what I consider to be news, check it out or download it on iTunes. We just did a report on the travails of Afghan women - not the hottest Twitter topic. We also profiled an army unit in Kandahar - our support for these brave young Americans is bipartisan. The show ended with the news of the death of a young soldier at a remote outpost along the Pakistan border. I met him on my last visit to the country at the end of last year. I wish his memory and brave actions were a trending topic on Twitter.

On our show we investigated a U.S. company mining in the Congo, trucking schools in Michigan, Iranian influence in western banks, and an epidemic of youth concussions in sports, among many others. These topics don't lend themselves to a five minute segment on a cable talk show or a short blog post. But they shape the lives of real Americans and people around the world. Most of the topics we tackle don't have a Republican angle or a Democratic angle. They can't be put on the political scoreboard.

The optimist in me believes that we are not as polarized as the partisans on the left and right would want us to believe. They make money on division. I have gotten dozens of letters from viewers for my HDNet show saying that they thought I was a left-wing partisan hack until they sat down and watched our reports. This is not meant to be self-aggrandizing. It is just evidence that if we stopped worrying about political point-scoring and sat and listened to the issues that matter, we would be less distracted and more focused on the problems that we all face and must solve together.