Sunday, September 26, 2004

BETTER THAN REALITY. Mark Steyn is at it again. In a recent syndicated column, published September 19 in the Chicago Sun-Times, the right-wing columnist goes after CBS News anchor Dan Rather. It is typical Steyn: funny, with a few genuine insights - and a quote that he attributes to Rather for which there is zero evidence. For Steyn, this is standard operating procedure. He writes:

Dan's been play-acting at being a reporter for so many years now - the suspenders, the loosened tie, and all the other stuff that would look great if he were auditioning for a cheesy dinner-theater revival of "The Front Page"; the over-the-top intros: "Bob Schieffer, one of the best hard-nosed reporters in the business, has been working his sources. What have you managed to uncover for us, Bob?", after which Bob reads out a DNC press release. Dan's been doing all this so long he doesn't seem to realize the news isn't just a show.

Did Rather ever actually say those words? When I read it, it struck me as the sort of thing Rather might have said in one of his nuttier moments, of which there have been many. So I checked 10 years' worth of CBS News transcripts on Lexis-Nexis. I began by searching for "working his sources" and "Schieffer."

It turns out that on January 23, 1998, Rather introduced a piece on the then-novel Monica Lewinsky story with this: "CBS' chief Washington correspondent, Bob Schieffer, has been digging and working his sources all day. Bob, what's the latest?" Clichéd and just a tad embarrassing? Well, sure. This is, after all, Dan Rather talking.

But there's nothing here about Schieffer's being "one of the best hard-nosed reporters in the business" or having "managed to uncover something for us." If Rather had said such a thing, it would have moved his utterance far above the mundane, into the sort of classic Ratherism that would be remembered and cherished for years to come. But unless Steyn's got evidence that this particular gem somehow didn't make it into Lexis-Nexis, I can only conclude that Rather never said it. That's kind of important in the business that Steyn claims to be in, though his fans don't seem to care.

Just to make sure, I also combined "Schieffer" with "hard-nosed reporter" (with and without the hyphen) and also with "managed to uncover." Zippo.

Now, then - were we supposed to believe that Rather actually said it, or was Steyn obviously using hyperbole to make a larger point, and I'm just too dense to get the joke? I'm sure that will be the defense he and/or the Steyniacs out there will offer. But Steyn's methodology is such that you can't quite be sure unless you've got the secret decoder ring. (I don't have a ring; just my suspicions.)

For instance, right up front he includes an actual quote from Rather, regarding the phonied-up Jerry Killian memos, that's only slightly less loopy than the Schieffer bit: "If the documents are not what we were led to believe, I'd like to break that story." By combining a nutty real Rather quote with what appears to be a fictitious one, Steyn manages to add to the impression that the fictitious quote isn't. Fictitious, that is.

There's also nothing in the fictitious quote that completely gives away the game. Steyn uses quotation marks; he could have used italics or some other device. He describes the Schieffer quote as one of Rather's typical "over-the-top intros." This isn't parody. It's bad faith masquerading as honest opinion-mongering. So what else is new?

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