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What Rather wrought
CBSís hapless anchor didnít just screw up ó he fulfilled every paranoid fantasy of the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy

LETíS DISPENSE WITH the obvious as quickly as we can. The fake National Guard memos about George W. Bush are a disaster for CBS News. Check. This gives the public one more reason to distrust the mainstream media. Check. A few bloggers in their pajamas proved more adept at sniffing out the truth than all the so-called journalists employed at West 57th. Check, although letís not forget it was old media ó especially the Washington Post ó that removed any remaining doubts, thereby forcing Dan Rather to apologize.

But all this is a sideshow to the main event. The debate over CBSís methodology and ethics, important though it may be, understates what an ugly, sordid mess this is for anyone who cares about the quality of public discourse. Because, deep down, this isnít about CBS and Rather. Itís not even about the media, except for the role that the media play in shaping and reflecting the national conversation. Instead, this is really about how the right wing ó so successful at the arts of lying and intimidation ó has been handed a gift of incalculable value. For the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy, every paranoid fantasy it has ever harbored has suddenly sprung to life.

Since Richard Nixonís presidency, the right has been screaming that the mainstream media are biased in favor of liberals. Theyíre not. Just ask Bill Clinton or Al Gore, or for that matter the family of the late Ronald Reagan, who was given generally worshipful coverage both during and after his hard-right presidency. Still, the screeching has served a purpose. By complaining loudly and incessantly ó by "working the refs," as media critic Eric Alterman has put it ó the right wing has been remarkably successful at intimidating the media into giving conservatives squishier, more respectful coverage than liberals get. Since a number of surveys show that elite Washington journalists really are overwhelmingly liberal, you might even say that the way journalists prove themselves to their peers and to the political establishment these days is by eating their own.

It is within that context that CBSís blunders ó worthy of a few firings in any case ó are so much more toxic than they might be under other circumstances. After all, this isnít Jack Kelley, a Christian conservative who made up war stories for USA Today. Nor is it Jayson Blair, who disgraced another great liberal bogeyman, the New York Times, but who demonstrated no particular ideological edge in doing so. Itís not even NBCís Dateline, blowing up General Motors trucks in order to show that, well, they blow up.

No, no, no. This is Dan Rather, the right wingís Public Enemy Number One. Dan Rather, who mouthed off to Nixon when the then-president challenged him at a news conference. Who so infuriated George H.W. Bush with a string of Iran-contra questions that the then-vice-president later referred to him as a "bastard." (Poppy kind of spoiled the macho effect by adding of Rather, "He makes Lesley Stahl look like a pussy." Well, now.) Dan Rather, who spoke at a Democratic Party fundraiser in Texas at the behest of his daughter and, when caught, said he didnít know it was a fundraiser. Such a symbol is Rather that there are at least three Web sites dedicated to bringing him down: RatherBiased.com, which has been around for a bit, and two postĖNational Guard entries, Rathergate.com and DanRatherMustGo.com.

Then there is CBS producer Mary Mapes, who did most of the reporting on the National Guard story, and who actually obtained the four memos criticizing George W. Bushís service, which were supposedly written in 1972 and í73 by the late Lieutenant Colonel Jerry Killian. (Never mind that the memos bear all the earmarks of documents that were typed on a computer with Microsoft Wordís default settings. Never mind that CBS ignored numerous warnings before rushing to air.) It turns out that Mapes helped to connect Bill Burkett, a mentally unstable, Bush-loathing Democratic activist from Texas, with Joe Lockhart, a former Clinton spokesman now working for John Kerryís presidential campaign. Though a certain amount of quid pro quo is sometimes necessary to advance a story ó i.e., "Iíll help you with this if you give me those documents" ó what Mapes did would appear to go well beyond whatís acceptable.

Of course, itís been many years since anyone referred to CBS as the "Tiffany network" except ironically. Third among the Big Three in ratings, third in quality, the network of Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite ("The reaction at the moment, of course, is embarrassment for everyone who is connected to CBS, and that embarrassment I hope will be squashed in time as we know what happened," Cronkite told the Boston Herald last week) has fallen harder and further than either of its rivals, ABC (which, after all, has Nightline) and NBC (which has the news-making Meet the Press as well as two cable outlets, even if it has no idea of what to do with them). But still, CBS News has a reputation and a history.

To make matters especially painful, the Memogate story appeared on the Wednesday edition of 60 Minutes, an effort at brand extension that has never matched the quality of the Sunday-evening original. Steve Kroft groused that the Sunday crew would not have made such a series of boneheaded errors. Sunday essayist Andy Rooney told the New York Daily News, "Iím surprised at their reluctance to concede theyíre wrong" ó and openly wondered whether Ratherís retirement might be hastened. (Four days after Ratherís apology, Rooney got back with the corporate program, saying, "We made a mistake, we admitted it, itís fine.")

Inside CBS, turmoil prevails. This past Monday the New York Times reported that Rather, whoís 72, might be allowed to retire next spring. For Rather, that would appear to be an optimistic scenario indeed, as outside investigators begin hunting for heads. And even though CBS News chief Andrew Heyward was involved in setting up the investigation, donít be surprised if ultimately he too is among its targets.

Outside CBS, the mess that Rather, Mapes, and company created is already beginning to warp the political dialogue.

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Issue Date: October 1 - 7, 2004
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