GLADDENING THE WINGNUTS' HEARTS. I've got a piece in the new Phoenix on the meltdown of CBS News, and of how Dan Rather and company have fulfulled every paranoid conspiracy theory of the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy.
Not long after the story was posted, I received a long, thought-provoking e-mail from Media Log reader T.F. I've removed a few bits to protect his identity:
Writing as a veteran of more than 25 years in TV, ... I think you have largely nailed the Dan Rather memo mischagass. I, too, suspect that he did little more than front the story. Perhaps he is too much of a team player to point the finger at a colleague.
Either way, the saga illustrates the law of unintended consequences. My conservative friends insist that Rather is biased. They chortled over his misfortune.... Rather and CBS handed them the gun to shoot him.
Perhaps Rather is anti-Bush. I suspect that if he is, it may have more to do with some obscure nonsense among Texans than with deeply held political convictions. I suspect that the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth were motivated more by a personal score to settle with John Kerry over his immediate post-Vietnam utterances than with anything having to do with presidential politics. It is amazing what personal animosity can do....
The most salient part of your argument, I think, is that the forged memos did nothing to advance the story that young Bush was an irresponsible young man and a party animal who had connections and used them. This was all known in advance of the 2000 election. Given his background, it would have been a story if he had NOT used connections. And the public have had three and one half years of him as president on which to base an opinion regarding his re-election.
Granted, for argument's sake at least, that Rather is not biased, or at least that he does not let his opinions color straight news reporting. All this begs the question, "Why?"
Why would Rather, this late in a distinguished career risk it all on a non-story? Admittedly, he is a "hot" personality in a job where the best in the business tend to be "cool." Think of Cronkite, Chancellor, Smith, Severeid, and even Brokaw and Jennings. Until long after Cronkie retired, no one knew what his political opinions were. The mystery did a lot for his credibility.
Simply put, it makes no sense, despite what the right-wingers say, for Rather to broadcast a misleading story knowingly. Even broadcast suits are smart enough to know when it is too easy to get caught.
It is one thing to suggest that Rather is bonkers. I doubt it. Jayson Blair, whom you correctly cite as having no discernible political agenda when he blew himself up at The Times, was suffering from untreated manic-depressive disorder during the months where he fabricated and plagarized. If The Times failed at anything, it was in giving a guy in the midst of a breakdown high profile assignments. That is not the fault of liberal bias. Rather, quirky as he may be, does not appear to suffer from a mental disorder.
So the mystery remains as to why so many experienced people, Rather and Mary Mapes included, went with so weak a story with so many flaws. Perhaps, like many journalists in a highly competitive situation, they let themselves believe too much in the "scoop" they were working and put skepticism aside. It is a dangerous trap, but I have seen folks fall into it more than once.
It is very CBS to draw the wagons in a circle when something like this happens. There is a kind of disbelief at CBS that people at the pinnacle of broadcast news are fallible in any way. It is terrible public relations. Winchell dealt with unreliable sources by saying, "the source has committed suicide." CBS would have been better advised to follow his example. The public, even the right wing, will forgive a mistake if it is owned up to in a hurry. Instead, Rather has made himself a punchline in Leno's monologue.
If you get the impression from this note that I have no particular political point of view on Rathergate, you are correct. I think that CBS and Rather have, through their snafu, handed us the mirror, and I am not thrilled with what I see.