Accuracy in Media

Dan Rather is obviously going through a very difficult time in his life, seriously clouding his already-clouded judgment. During a recent appearance he came close to tears and appeared to be on the verge of an emotional breakdown.

Remember that Rather was expecting to be in his 25th and final year as CBS Evening News anchor, but was derailed by what has come to be known as Memogate, or even more ironically, as Rathergate. That was the scandal in which Rather was caught using phony documents to smear President Bush. To have earned the “gate” suffix after his name was certainly not how Dan Rather wanted or expected to be remembered. But it will forever be part of his tainted legacy. His desire to do in Republican presidents finally got the better of him. It was Rather, not Bush, who ended up disgraced. Incredibly, he told a National Press Club event that he still stands by the discredited story. This is the mark of a biased journalist who has lost the ability to comprehend basic facts.

In September, Rather was honored in an emotional ceremony at the Emmy Awards, TV’s night of self-congratulations. He stood with Tom Brokaw, the NBC anchor who also stepped down in the past year, as they spoke of their other contemporary, Peter Jennings, the ABC News anchor who passed away recently from cancer. They were given a huge ovation by the largely liberal Hollywood glitterati.

The very next night, Rather spoke at the Fordham University School of Law in New York, and according to the Hollywood Reporter, he “said there is a climate of fear running through newsrooms stronger than he has ever seen in his more than four-decade career.” The article said that Rather was “occasionally forcing back tears” while commenting how “politicians ‘of every persuasion’ had gotten better at applying pressure on the conglomerates that own the broadcast networks. He called it a ‘new journalism order.'”

Rather argued that the combination of “dumbed-down, tarted-up” coverage, plus the 24-hour cable news competition, and the chase for ratings were the key factors. “All of this creates a bigger atmosphere of fear in newsrooms.” He said that the Watergate days were better by comparison, because he felt supported by everyone above him at CBS. “There was a connection,” Rather said, “between the leadership and the led?a sense of, ‘we’re in this together.'”

The irony in all of this is that Rather needs to look inward to find the problem.

Perhaps the reason that Rather didn’t receive the support from his bosses at CBS has something to do with his own erratic actions. According to the report released last January following the investigation by former Attorney General Richard Thornburgh and former Associated Press CEO Louis Boccardi, Rather assured Andrew Heyward, the president of CBS News, that the now discredited September 8, 2004 story on 60 Minutes Wednesday about President Bush’s National Guard service was not only true, but also “very big.” Rather assured Heyward that the story had been “thoroughly vetted,” and that he had not “been involved in this much checking on a story since Watergate.” But the blunders were blamed on others, not Rather.

It turned out that not only was the story based on phony documents, which were exposed as forgeries within hours of their being posted on the CBS website, but the story was dishonestly concocted and information that undermined the premise of the story was purposely left out. Rather than going into the National Guard to avoid Vietnam, as CBS maintained, the Thornburgh/Boccardi report showed that CBS had evidence that Bush volunteered to go to Vietnam as a pilot. CBS conveniently left this information out of its now-discredited story because it completely undercut the anti-Bush theme that CBS was putting out during the heat of a presidential campaign.

After holding out for 12 days, CBS finally apologized and said they could no longer stand by their claim that the documents were authentic. But they insisted that the basic story was true. Perhaps that is the reason that Rather didn’t get the support from Heyward, leading to his “climate of fear” contention. Rather had seriously misled his boss, a firing offense. In all fairness, Rather should have been fired from the network for his irresponsible behavior.  Instead, lower-level people were given the boot. 

One significant difference between Watergate, when Rather felt protected and supported by the higher-ups, and today, is that today there are many media watchdogs.  Back during Watergate, Accuracy in Media was the only organization whose mission was to monitor the media for biased and inaccurate reporting. Today, there is talk radio, cable TV, as well as many blogs and other websites who make it their business to watch the news and expose the lies. If it hadn’t been for the blogs in this case, CBS may have gotten away with their phony story, and it could have altered the outcome of the presidential election in 2004, which was probably its intent.

Rather also told the Fordham law school that coverage of Hurricane Katrina had “been one of television news’ finest moments.” Certainly there was some very good coverage, but for the most part it turned into just another opportunity to attack President Bush. It irresponsibly kept reporting grossly exaggerated death counts, and played the race card in a very unfortunate way, while poorly and wrongly fixing blame for apparent failures. 

Dan Rather stayed on the scene too long. He is still with CBS, but very scaled back in his air-time. Hopefully he will have the sense and dignity to temper his comments in the future. Better yet, he should go from semi-retirement to permanent retirement.

Take some more time off, Dan, before you embarrass yourself further. It’s time to get off the stage before you collapse in a bucket of your own crocodile tears.

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