Transcript: Dan Rather (touch screen machines, state of journalism), Aug 14 2007

Dan Rather may be the most famous journalist in the world. He served as anchor and managing editor of the CBS Evening News from March 9, 1981 to March 9, 2005, the longest such tenure in broadcast journalism history. He is now the anchor and managing editor of Dan Rather Reports, which started broadcasting on HDNet in November, 2006, www.hd.net is the web site. Tonight, Dan Rather has an extraordinary special on voting machines.

Thom Hartmann talks with Dan Rather, 14 August 2007

[Thom]: Dan Rather may be the most famous journalist in the world. He has covered virtually every major event in the world in the past 50 years. His resume reads like a history book, from his early local reporting in Texas on Hurricane Carla to his unparalleled work covering the assassination of President John F. Kennedy; the civil rights movement; the White House and national politics; wars in Vietnam, Afghanistan, the Persian Gulf, Yugoslavia and Iraq. From his first days as the Associated Press reporter in Huntsville, Texas, in 1950, Rather has more than earned his reputation as the “hardest working man in broadcast journalism.”

He served as anchor and managing editor of the CBS Evening News from March 9, 1981 to March 9, 2005, the longest such tenure in broadcast journalism history. And I would add, in my opinion, one of the most deserved; one of the finest reporters probably in the history of this nation.

Now the anchor and managing editor of Dan Rather Reports, which started broadcasting on HDNet in November, 2006, www.hd.net is the web site. I encourage you to check it out because tonight, Dan Rather has an extraordinary special on.

Dan Rather welcome to the program.

[Rather]: Thank you very much, Thom, and thank you for that generous introduction. I'm unworthy of it, but I'm very appreciative of it.

[Thom]: Oh, you're not. I, you know, you started in broadcast television I think the year that I was born or the year before; in 1950, I was born in 51, and I grew up with you. I mean, you and the work that you have done I so miss. We have gone from news to infotainment, which is a whole different topic. I guess. Let's talk, though, about this special that you're doing. I watched part of it last night; there is a trailer that's all over the web.

and you start with this discussion of the Christine Jennings race down in Florida.

[Rather]: Right, well what happened, and one of the reasons I was interested in doing this program that, you know, we're right back in Florida once again, once yet again, trying to find out important questions about voting equipment, voter intent, why in so many cases voters' votes are not registered properly and not counted. Now, I want to emphasize, Thom, that, you know, this program doesn't have an agenda in terms of any partisan politcalship. But once again in Florida in the 2006 election they had this election in which there were enormous questions about why so many voters, according to the machines that were used, didn't vote in the most important race in their district. You know, it would be one thing if it were just a few votes or maybe a few hundred votes, but thousands upon thousands of people, according to the machines, chose not to vote for a candidate or in the most important race so...

[Thom]: For the US House of Representatives.

[Rather]: For the House of Representatives. The race was decided by only a few hundred votes out of many thousands cast. And lo and behold, because the machines, you don't have a paper record anywhere of what happened to votes, when you get into a recount situation or challenge situation, you don't have the information that you need. But the touch screen system which is used in so many places in the country, it has a lot of problems and these problems are well known by election officials, and we got to the touch screens because everybody was appalled by the punch card system that was used in Florida in 2000. Now 7 years after the debacle of the 2000 election, 7 years afterward, billions of dollars of taxpayer money going into trying to fix the problem, we still have problems.

And what this program does tonight is tell you what the workers, among other things, it tells you what the workers who put the equipment together, what their concerns were as they were putting the equipment together, what they told their company superiors. They said, "Look, we've got problems with these touch screens; they don't work as they are supposed to work". And the companies' response, well you see it tonight, was basically, "Let's keep these things moving, let's get the equipment out. We've got to get this out".

And there are plenty of scientists, Thom, who were worried about the potential, and the potential is there, of people hacking into these touch screen systems and manipulating elections, and that's an important question, but the more important question, and the bigger worry, is the reliability of the machines, and the people who made the machines, they do tell you straight out in this program, "from the very beginning we had problems with them. We tried to tell management we had problems with them, and they made some efforts to improve them, but there are just inherent problems".

[Thom]: Yes, this was the Teletech factory in the Philippines run by the Ching family in Manila, which has its own problems.

[Rather]: Well, I'd be surprised, Thom, if many people aren't surprised when they see, 'did you know the touch screen equipment is made in Manila in the Philippines, run by a family that has a widely questioned reputation, I think would be the best way to say it, with components that come from, among other places, mainland China, and the company is rooted in Venezuela?' Now stop and think for a moment what I've just said. The machines are made in the Philippines, the Ching family which has a widely questioned reputation with some components from Taiwan and mainland China, and the company is run out of Venezuela. Is this any way to run elections? You know, I'll leave it for people to decide.

[Thom]: Well, and this raises a larger issue that is virtually absent in the broad discussion, and I'm not sure if you cover it in your special tonight. We're talking with Dan Rather, his special tonight on hd.net. It's on HD TV. If you want schedules and times, it'll be tonight I believe its at 8 o'clock Eastern time, but check your local listings. But hd.net you can find how and where you can see this tonight.

And that's the issue of privatization. If it's a small crime against democracy to privatize the concession stand at Yellowstone and take part of our national treasure and turn it into a profit center, or to privatize you know, schools, or, you know, if we would consider it absurd, for example, to privatize our court system, would you say, 'Well, we'd never do that', why would we privatize the beating heart of democracy, the vote, the thing that is the means by which we tell our elected officials this is how we want you to administer the commons that we collectively own?

[Rather]: Well, characteristically, Thom, you've gone to the red beating heart of the question, and I'm not surprised your audience is growing everywhere, because that's very insightful. Exactly so. That we have outsourced the building and supplying of our voting equipment, and the people to whom we've outsourced it have in turn outsourced it to, among others, all kinds of foreign interests. Now stop right there. Is this any way to run elections? Privatization. I would say this, you know, You never met anybody who believes stronger in private enterprise, but when you privatize and outsource the building of election equipment, there absolutely has to be, this is not a partisan issue, it is absolutely imperative that you have quality control and accountability.

And the quality control, as this program tonight lays out very clearly, the quality control in many cases is virtually non-existent. In the cases where there is some quality control, the record shows that it doesn't work very well. There's no transparency with these companies that one of the things that you know, viewers will learn from this program tonight is there is a disturbing amount of secrecy about our elections. You know, the companies that manufacture these machines, they stonewalled us. That's one thing; we're journalists. But more importantly, they stonewall everybody else. There's no transparency about how they make these machines. They hide behind what they call "trade secrets", just like Coca Cola says, 'Listen, we can't give you the formula for Coke because it's a trade secret, just like...'

[Thom]: But the formula for Coke is not the heartbeat of democracy.

[Rather]: No, and with McDonalds. McDonalds says, 'it's a trade secret about this sauce for McDonald's hamburgers'. Well, forgive my reporter's French, what the hell?

[Thom]: Yeah.

[Rather]: That has to do with hamburgers and Coca Cola. We're talking the vitals of democracy. So there's got to be transparency and there's got to be accountability. If the machines don't work, you've got to be accountable. And the officials who buy the machines have to be made accountable.

[Thom]: Yeah, and you've done an extraordinary job in this special, at least what I've seen of it, and I'll be looking for it tonight. We're talking with Dan Rather, his special tonight on HD TV; hd.net is the web site for the HDNet home and Dan Rather, can you stick around for a minute? I'd like to talk with you for a few minutes about the state of journalism in America.

[Rather]: Sure, I'd be glad to.

[Thom]: I would be, very, very, very much appreciate that. we have to take a break. It's 16 minutes past the hour, we're talking with Dan Rather.

...

Bumper Music: They Lost My Vote, Ellen Bukstel and Nancy Wuerzburger.

[Thom]: And if you want to learn all about it, check out hd.net for Dan Rather Reports, tonight, 8 o'clock Eastern Time, on cable systems, satellite systems, TV all over the country you can find it, and also on the web site, all the information right there. Dan Rather with us on the line. This extraordinary special that you're doing, Dan, tonight, about the nature, the problems with the voting machines, and going all the way back to the Philippines and the factory and everything, this is serious investigative reporting. Why is serious investigative reporting not happening in the United States any longer, by and large?

[Rather]: Well, among the reasons is the following, in no particular order; investigative reporting, it takes time, and it takes a lot of resources, and it takes, it's expensive. And even the largest of the news organizations, let's face it, I have no illusions at HDNet with our weekly program, Dan Rather Reports, you know, we're a small outfit. And with this particular program about the integrity of our voting process, we poured ourselves into it. But one reason is it takes a long time, it takes a lot of resources, it takes a lot of money, and some of the time, when you do an investigative piece of journalism, you get to the end of the trail, and what you thought might be there isn't there and therefore you know, you say, look, we don't have a program. And companies don't like that.

But perhaps more important, Thom, and this goes to the core of it, investigative reporting at its best "causes trouble"; which is, that you take on very powerful interests. In this program tonight on HDNet companies such as Sequoia, ES&S, which ss the largest voting machine manufacturer around, I think, Bergquist, Pivot, I mean, these are large corporate interests. Now, when you do investigative reporting, by its very nature, you're bound to make somebody mad, make somebody uncomfortable, make somebody angry and with the decline of investigative reporting, and there has been a decline, with few exceptions, that big corporations don't like trouble.

And then beyond that, they especially don't like trouble in Washington. That something like 80% of our major media outlets are owned by no more than 6 or 7 companies at most, and these companies are large international conglomerates; they have legislative and regulatory needs in Washington and the kind of gutsy investigative reporting frequently is investigating people from whom these large corporations need favors. And that is another reason why you see less and less of really hard-nosed, you know, play-no-favorites and kind of investigative reporting, that has gone out of favor for among other reasons,

the ones I've just listed.

[Thom]: It seems to me, Dan Rather, I remember back in the 70s and 80s when the joke in the business world, and I was in the business world at the time, was, "You know it's going to be a bad day when you wake up in the morning and there is a CBS film crew from 60 Minutes standing on your front door step". You know, I mean, that was, and there was a lot of truth to that; I mean, people used to be genuinely terrified of you guys.

And then it seems like in the early 80s Reagan stopped enforcing the Sherman Anti-Trust Act and there was this mergers and acquisition mania that happened. And then in the mid 80s, in '87, he did away with the Fairness Doctrine, and one of the provisions of that was that television and radio stations have to program in the public interest; they had to provide public interest programming, which by and large was news, and so there was this firewall between the news department and the sales department.

And then in '96 Clinton signed the Telecommunications Act which further expanded that or did away with that, arguably; you know, the whole concept of programming in the public interest. So now what we have is infotainment on the cheap.

Am I missing anything here?

[Rather]: Well, that's well stated, and that's, you know, pretty much what happened. The key phrase there is public service. For a long time, indeed, from the beginning of broadcasting in this country, we believed in private ownership and private enterprise.

[Thom]: Sure.

[Rather]: But the contract, the compact with the public was, 'You, Mr. private enterprise person, you get to use the public airwaves and in exchange for that, you commit to a certain amount of public service. We expect you to make a profit. We expect most of what you do to be aimed at making a profit, but at least a wee small part of what you do has to be dedicated to public service'. And for a long time, for the better part of, I'll say, seventy, seventy-five years, perhaps longer, is that right? For a very long time that's what we had, and at CBS, and this was true at NBC and in the late years ABC grew, this was the deal, that we're going to make money and we're going to make it mostly out of our entertainment programs. But we're going to provide a public service,

and most of that public service is going to be news. There were some religious programs allowed to time. That is all gone. The concept of public service is now all gone, and that's the reason you find so much infotainment.

[Thom]: Yeah, and I think we need to reclaim it, but that's a whole 'nother discussion. Dan Rather, thank you so much for being with us. hd.net for the information. Dan Rather Reports. Dan, thank you very much.

[Rather]: Thom, thank you very much.

[Rather]: Great speaking with you, and for the many, many years of service to our country I would say that you did.


You can hear an archive of the entire interview at KPOJ.

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