Accuracy in Media

Former CBS News anchor and reporter Dan Rather sent shockwaves through CBS and the mainstream media with his dramatic lawsuit against his former employer. On CNN’s Larry King Live last night, Rather seemed shaken and very emotional, fighting back tears on several occasions. His legal claims are even shakier.

The suit involves how Rather was treated before, during and after the scandal that badly damaged the network back in 2004 and 2005 when it made explosive but false charges, based on phony documents, against President Bush just two months before the presidential election. The story backfired on the network, reconfirming to millions of people the existence of a liberal media bias. 

The story line was that President Bush had political connections that got him in to the Texas Air National Guard so that he could avoid going to the Vietnam War, and that he shirked his duties and responsibilities in the Guard. Rather featured alleged Texas Air National Guard documents on the air as proof of these charges. 

In fact, the story was bogus almost from start to finish. As AIM Editor Cliff Kincaid noted in a 2005 AIM Report, the investigation into the scandal, commissioned by CBS, found that Rather’s producer Mary Mapes had documented information in her possession before the broadcast that Bush, while in the Texas Air National Guard, “did volunteer for service in Vietnam but was turned down in favor of more experienced pilots.” This information was critical because Rather, in the broadcast, insinuated that Bush was among the “many well-connected young men [who tried to] pull strings and avoid service in Vietnam.”

In addition, the report confirms that Bush didn’t need any help getting into the Guard. He went in for training as a fighter pilot and learned how to fly on F-102s, which were used in Vietnam during the first part of the war. There was no waiting list and there were immediate openings. Candidates had to meet stringent requirements, and training was intense and lasted more than a year. Bush was rated very highly by the people who trained him, in the top 10% of those in his group. 

Could the Rather suit be an attempt to emulate Don Imus, also fired from CBS for his controversial words, who sued the network and reportedly collected about $20 million to make the lawsuit go away? Rather claims that it is not about the money and that, if he wins, he will give most of it to journalism causes. 

In the lawsuit, Rather accused CBS of making him a “scapegoat” for the story because CBS wanted to “pacify the White House.” He claimed that CBS executives “coerced” him “into publicly apologizing and taking personal blame for alleged journalistic errors in the broadcast.”

Rather invoked conspiratorial themes in defending the lawsuit, saying, “The most important reason is somebody sometime has got to take a stand and say democracy cannot survive, much less thrive, with the level of big corporate and big government interference and intimidation in news.”

But almost no one believes this. The GE-owned NBC and MSNBC networks employ Bush-bashers full-time. MSNBC, for example, sticks with liberals such as Chris Matthews and Keith Olbermann, despite their openly partisan bias and relatively low ratings. 

If anything, the “Rathergate” incident demonstrated the health of our democracy, as elements of the new media, led by bloggers, were quick to point out major discrepancies in Rather’s anti-Bush on-air diatribe. In 2005, AIM honored the Internet bloggers and posters who were in the forefront of detecting some of the fraudulent aspects of the story. They started an avalanche of media attention on the story, especially Rather’s use of alleged National Guard documents said to be incriminating toward Bush. Questions about their authenticity eventually forced Rather to make an on-air apology and CBS established a commission to examine how the network got taken in.  

Rather now claims that this commission was a “fraud” and a “set-up.” However, it was headed by two very-respected individuals, former Republican Attorney General and governor of Pennsylvania Richard Thornburgh, and the former head of the Associated Press Louis Boccardi. If anything, their 224-page report was not strong enough in its condemnation of Rather’s misconduct. It failed for example, to definitively conclude that the alleged National Guard documents Rather used on the air were fakes. Or that there was political bias involved. Instead they argued that it was “haste” and a rush to get the story on the air. 

Although he is a multi-millionaire, Rather may be betting that CBS will want to pay him off. A lawsuit with testimony and discovery could prove highly damaging to the low-rated and long suffering CBS News. Neil Cavuto of the Fox News Channel says this is why CBS will find a way to settle with Rather, instead of letting this drag on and on through the courts. Ripping off the network through a lawsuit could provide some form of “vindication” for Rather, at least in his mind. 

Trying to rewrite history, Rather and one of his fired producers, Mary Mapes, have been putting forth the untenable position that the story that was exposed as false was essentially true. Turning the burden of proof around, in order to try to get himself off the hook, Rather says no one proved the documents were not authentic. But this is not how journalism is supposed to work. Journalists are not supposed to base their work on material that may or may not be true. Putting forward this “defense” of their story is extremely embarrassing. 

Liberal commentator Jonathan Alter reviewed Mapes’ book, Truth and Duty, noting her sloppy work and failure to take into account the motives of “anti-Bush zealot” Bill Burkett, who provided her with the now famous documents on which the story was based. Burkett lied about where he got them, and no one has still been able to determine their source. On that basis, there is no other valid conclusion than that they were fake. 

In now trying to blame others, Rather was confronted by CNN’s Larry King with his June 2, 2005, statement that “I’m not a victim of anything except my own shortcomings.” Rather said he has since learned that Sumner Redstone, the head of then-CBS parent Viacom, had stated that “this story had cost Viacom and CBS in Washington.” Rather claimed that Redstone, as a result of the fiasco, “wanted Dan Rather and everybody connected with it out. So that’s an example of the kind of thing that a year ago that I didn’t know.”

But why shouldn’t the head of a company want those responsible for this story out? This was a major embarrassment to the network and Viacom. Indeed, Rather’s history as a partisan journalist should have been grounds for getting him out sooner. His poor ratings alone should have gotten him canned. 

In another effort to shift blame to others, Rather is also now claiming that his role in the Bush National Guard story was overblown. He now insists that it was being put together while he was covering a hurricane, Bill Clinton’s heart surgery, and Iraq. He doesn’t seem to realize that this “defense” of the story boils down to making him out to be a superficial talking head. On Larry King Live on CNN he added that corporate suits at CBS wrote most of the apology, though some of the words were his own.

Washington Post media reporter Howard Kurtz quotes a former colleague of Rather as saying he has gone off the deep end, and that he had been deeply involved in all aspects of the story 

Asked by King to respond, Rather said: “I’ve never been clearer in my mind about anything-I can’t recall being clearer. And this is the right stand at the right time about the right issue.”

In fact, it’s the wrong stand on the wrong issue at the wrong time, and CBS should easily win this case. The corporate suits at CBS should not back away from this one. It should be entertaining to watch Dan Rather sweating profusely on the witness stand. Such a spectacle will be embarrassing to CBS News but it is the only way to expose Rather’s misconduct and make him pay for filing a frivolous lawsuit.

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