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April 20, 2011

Dan Rather regales with stories of "A Lifetime of Reporting"

If journalism is "storytelling with a purpose," then Dan Rather – who has circled the globe reporting on some of the most significant events of our time – is perhaps one of the most iconic and purpose-driven storytellers in a generation.

Rather, who will be 80-years-old in October, shared stories in a lecture titled, "What I've Learned from a Lifetime of Reporting," April 19 in Brown Auditorium, as part of the University of Louisiana at Monroe's Presidential Lyceum Series.

Earlier in the day, he regaled ULM students with tales of his early ambition to report the news during a master class before taking questions from local media and then greeting guests at a Patron Party held at the ULM Seventh Floor Library Conference Center.

Rather's lecture began on a poignant note – a request for 10 seconds of silence in deference to the men and women serving in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The silence was soon followed by the Texan-born reporter's passionate defense of journalists working on behalf of an American public concerning matters of public policy.

The former anchor is famous for his memorable election-night colloquialisms like "This race is tight like a too-small bathing suit on a too-long ride home from the beach," and he shared often throughout the day how his parent's love for newspapers, "The poor man's university," established in him a burning passion for journalism at a very young age.

Saying that the bedrock of the craft of great journalism is writing, Rather advised would-be journalists that they are headed toward the right profession if they "burn with a hot blue flame to do it."

He told master class students that he was changed by his coverage of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. during the crusade for civil rights in the 1960s.

Although he is the recipient of virtually every honor in broadcast journalism, Rather confessed during his public lecture there were "blown chances and missed opportunities" along the way, in a career that has spanned such groundbreaking and historical events as the Vietnam conflict, Watergate and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

"I stand before you as a reporter who got lucky, very lucky," he said.

"I am honored to have made a living doing what I love. But I stand before you with scars and still open wounds, many of them self-inflicted. I have had some successes and I've had some failures."

On the personal front, one of Rather's greatest successes is an enduring marriage to his Texas sweetheart, Jeannine Grace Goebel Rather, who he said has kept him grounded during rocky moments in his life with frequent reminders of when it was time to G.T.T. - Go To Texas.

Rather talked of his initiation into investigative journalism in which he uncovered a suspicious arson turned murder-investigation in his hometown during the segregated Jim Crow era of the South. Rather was working at a local radio station at the time.

He said his boss never told him not to run the story, but he was forewarned that "a lot of powerful people are not going to like what you report."

Rather said he learned how important it was to be prepared to defend well and immediately the facts as they are uncovered and to accept that there would be powerful people who would prefer the truth not be revealed, even as the public deserved to know.

"It was a learning experience for me," said Rather. "I have been hooked on investigative reporting ever since."

Rather was the news anchor for the CBS Evening News for 24 years, a contributor to CBS's 60 Minutes and a correspondent reporting from the front lines around the world. He also covered nearly every major domestic story over the last 50 years, including being the first to break the news of President John F. Kennedy's assassination.

But Rather, who produces and hosts a weekly news program featuring investigative pieces for the cable network HDNet, said his work as a journalist is far from over.

"I go forward trying to do more, not less," he said. "There has never been more of a need for quality journalism."

Rather said his lifetime of reporting has raised more questions than answers about whether Americans still believe in and are prepared to defend a free and independent press, which he called the "red beating heart of Democracy."

A free press, he said, was just as critical as the constitutionally created three branches of government for keeping a system of checks and balances in place, regardless of party or ideology.

"Government officials still have tremendous power to manufacture their own reputations," he said.

"(Investigative journalism) is the magnifying glass that amplifies falsehoods and outright propaganda."

Rather said a war is being waged daily in journalism between seriousness and sensationalism. Unfortunately, he said, sensationalism is winning.

“We need the power of the press, as battered and tumultuous as it is, to guide us as close to the truth as humanly possible,” Rather said.

"Whatever your life's work, right now our country needs you to be alert, active, engaged and involved. We are on the razors edge of danger," Rather said.

"Your role as a citizen is that you must not hesitate or cower in your work."

Dan Rather's visit was sponsored by the ULM Campus Activities Board and Student Government Association.

About the Presidential Lyceum Series

ULM's Presidential Lyceum Series began in 2003 to promote intellectual exchange among ULM students, faculty, staff and the community.

Past Lyceum speakers have included journalist and Pulitzer prize winning author Thomas Friedman; broadcast journalist Lisa Ling; political strategists James Carville and Mary Matalin; businessman and entrepreneur Steve Forbes; comedian and television personality Ben Stein; laywer and social activist Robert Kennedy Jr.; author/historian and Pulitzer Prize winner Doris Kearns Goodwin; and film/TV star and comedian Bill Cosby.

For more about the Presidential Lyceum Series, including bios of past Lyceum speakers and photo galleries, visit

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