Dan Rather: ‘Selling Watermelons’ Comment on The Chris Matthews Show Not Racist

DanRather.jpgTV news icon Dan Rather used his column in The Huffington Post to discuss a comment he made during The Chris Matthews Show and the reaction to it on Twitter.

While discussing President Barack Obama and the nation’s health care dilemma on Sunday’s show, Rather used the analogy of “selling watermelons by the side of the road,” and the news veteran, who currently hosts Dan Rather Reports on HDNet, started his column on HuffPost with, “I must confess that until recently, I had no idea what Twitter was.” Highlights from HuffPost:

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.

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.

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.