Here is the full text of Dan Rather’s remarks at NCAC’s Annual Celebration of Free Speech and Its Defendents:
Thank you to the National Coalition Against Censorship for this honor; I am humbled. I do not think myself worthy of this recognition, but I will try to become worthy of it. This is a cause that speaks to the core of what I believe about my chosen craft, and this award is made all the more meaningful by the company I find myself in this night.
We gather at a time of great danger for the First Amendment. Many Americans may no longer sense this viscerally, but we need to remember—and we forget at our peril—that it was only a few years ago that citizens were told from the Press room of the White House, and from the Pentagon, that we need to “be careful” of what we say.
We might sense that the season has turned, that this chilling wind no longer threatens our exercise of First Amendment rights. And maybe we’d be right. But those of us in the press would be mistaken to congratulate ourselves too much, to rest on our “post-Katrina” laurels or underestimate the substantial damage that’s already been done to how the public at large thinks about and understands our First Amendment freedoms.
It was only weeks ago, for example, that Governor Sarah Palin, a major-party nominee for Vice President of the United States, spoke of Freedom of the Press as a “privilege” that the media “abuse.”
Whether there is real, anti-First Amendment intent reflected in these words, or a misunderstanding of the Constitution, or a simple misstatement, they are cause for genuine concern. As is the fact that these words received very little notice or outcry when they were spoken.
Therein, I believe, lies the central challenge of this cause to defend First Amendment rights: To make it understood from sea to shining sea, in towns big and small, that the First Amendment is not some scoundrel’s refuge for elites real or imagined, but a bulwark against tyranny for all Americans.
In the case of the press, the guarantee of a free press represented the Framers’ implicit understanding that journalists had an essential role to play in our democracy—that without the raw material of information, We the People would not be able to govern ourselves wisely or well.
So it is not for the press but for the people that we fight for access to the corridors of power, as the people’s surrogates. It is not for the press but for the people that we pressure our elected representatives and our candidates for office to answer the questions that the people might ask, if they had the opportunity. And it is not for the press but for the people that we defend (and call for our publishers and news owners to defend) our right to print and broadcast the truth—straight, no chaser.
If journalists hope to enlist our fellow Americans in the defense of the Constitutional rights that are there for all of us, we must inspire in them a sense that we are using these rights with a sense of Constitutional purpose. That is not to say that they are in any sense a privilege, rather than inalienable rights; it is to say that these rights will be taken seriously—and we will be taken seriously—only to the degree that we put them in practice towards serious ends.
And we might recognize that, when we work towards trivial ends, we undermine our case and we play a hand in eroding our hard-won freedoms.
I will say, in closing, that one of the most pernicious ways in which we do this is through self-censorship, which may be the worst censorship of all. We have seen too much self-censorship in the news in recent years, and as I say this please know that I do not except myself from this criticism.
As Mark Twain once said, “We write frankly and freely but then we ‘modify’ before we print.” Why do we modify the free and frank expression of journalistic truth? We do it out of fear: Fear for our jobs. Fear that we’ll catch hell for it. Fear that someone will seek to hang a sign around our neck that says, in essence, “Unpatriotic.”
We modify with euphemisms such as “collateral damage” or “less than truthful statements.” We modify with passive-voice constructions such as “mistakes were made.” We modify with false equivalencies that provide for bad behavior the ready-made excuse that “everybody’s doing it.” And sometimes we modify with an eraser—simply removing offending and inconvenient truths from our reporting.
But as Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “Every suppressed or expunged word reverberates through the earth from side to side.” When we bury the truth, we do not bury consequences. We only stand in the way of the American people. We keep this government of, by, and for the people from working as it should. And when we are complicit in burying the truth, we need to know well that we are also complicit in burying ourselves.
So, in accepting this honor, I will gird myself anew to uncover the truth, and to speak it and write it and broadcast it. And as I thank the Coalition for its fine work, I exhort all of you here tonight to do the same, not only for yourselves but, in the spirit of true patriots, for all Americans. Thank you, good night, and Godspeed.