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What Rather wrought (continued)

Which raises a question that goes to the heart of how the media work these days. Why has CBS News gone into meltdown mode for screwing up a story that was already known to be true when news organizations that continued to pimp the swift-boat claims long after they had been discredited ó primarily Fox News, but also MSNBC and others, especially talk radio ó have paid absolutely no price? Partly, I think, itís because CBSís reputation, though hardly what it used to be, still matters, whereas even Foxís fans understand that theyíre watching what is essentially Republican-flavored infotainment. In a recent piece for the New Republicís Web site, Telis Demos observed that Fox has promoted a number of howlers this year, including that fake photo of John Kerry and Jane Fonda from an anti-war rally many years ago, as well as the idiotically distorted claim that Kerry has voted for tax increases 350 times. "Why did Fox News get away with presenting a forgery? Why does [Sean] Hannity get away with recycling Bush talking points that donít stand up to any measure of intellectual honesty?" asked Demos. "Because Fox reporters hide behind the conceit that they are opinion journalists, and media critics therefore hold them to a lower standard ó as if being in the business of opinion journalism frees Fox from the obligation to deal in facts."

But thereís another, more insidious factor at work here: the enormous difference between how conservative activists react to perceptions of liberal bias as opposed to how liberal activists react to perceptions of conservative bias. In fact, there is no substantial, organized effort to target conservative distortions, notwithstanding public protests by Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting and Web sites such as MediaMatters.org. By contrast, the right is ready to go into full battle mode almost instantaneously. This week, for instance, Associated Press television writer David Bauder reported that the CBS affiliate in Buffalo, New York, had received some 1300 e-mails in protest of Dan Ratherís continued presence on the airwaves. "Most are part of a national campaign against Rather from conservatives who have hated him since he covered the Nixon White House," Bauder wrote. Though he added there has since been "a backlash campaign" in support of Rather, he offered no numbers. In fact, it is difficult to imagine who would lobby to keep Rather on the air. Liberals? Why?

Whether Dan Rather lasts another day, another week, or until next spring, his credibility is forever shattered. I think Boston University journalism-department chair Bob Zelnick, a former ABC News correspondent, gets it right when he suggests that Rather turn the anchor chair over to Bob Schieffer, host of Face the Nation, at least until the internal investigation is over. But regardless, what has happened to CBS this month marks the beginning of the end of an era. Rather may be a liberal, but I donít think that has affected the way he approaches the news. He was the least critical of an uncritical lot following 9/11 and the build-up to the war in Iraq. Political analyst Larry OíDonnell, on MSNBC, observed last week that Rather was also behind what he believed to be an unfair report several years ago that cast former Democratic senator Bob Kerrey as a war criminal. Is that liberal bias? Obviously not.

There is no way for Rather to keep his dignity, because his most credible defense would be to claim that he didnít know what was going on ó that Mary Mapes did all the work, and he just read the lines. That may be close to what happened. Thatís how television often works, and some front people ó known as "talent" inside the industry ó are more diligent than others about vetting what theyíre reading. Peter Arnett completely humiliated himself over Time and CNNís Tailwind story of a few years back, claiming he wrote "not one comma" of a script that asserted US forces had used nerve gas during the Vietnam War. Arnett saved his job, but was forced out within a year. (He popped up in Baghdad during the war, but lost his platform after he was seen critiquing the American war effort in a meeting with Iraqi officials.)

Itís certainly possible that Rather failed to perform due diligence, and is too proud or stubborn to admit how little he had to do with what was essentially someone elseís story.

THE BIG THREE anchors of the past generation will soon be gone. At NBC, Tom Brokaw will give way to Brian Williams after the election. At ABC, Peter Jennings has announced no plans to leave; but it would be surprising if heís around for Campaign 2008. As for Rather ó the least able and the strangest of the three (Bryan Curtis recently wrote in Slate, "Rather isnít a liberal hack. Heís bonkers"), itís only a matter of time.

But the damage that Rather helped to create will live on. In a Time poll whose results were released this week, some 84 percent of respondents said they were aware of the 60 Minutes report on Bushís service in the National Guard. Of those, 43 percent said CBS had made an "honest mistake," but 40 percent said CBS was "deliberately trying to mislead the public." Thatís hardly surprising. The public has been told over and over again that liberal media bias is one of the leading threats to civilization as we know it. Given that, the only surprise is that 43 percent were willing to give the network the benefit of the doubt.

Never has the right had a gift like this dropped in its lap. Dan Rather and John Kerry, together at last ó all wrapped up as a two-headed action figure that Republicans can use to scare voters, intimidate the media, and solidify their control over the national conversation.

Rather used to sign off his newscasts with a single word: "courage." The hell with that. Be afraid.

Dan Kennedy can be reached at dkennedy[a]phx.com. Read his Media Log at BostonPhoenix.com.

page 3 

Issue Date: October 1 - 7, 2004
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