Accuracy in Media

Writing in the Washington Post, Tina Brown says that Dan Rather comes across in the panel report on the “Rathergate” scandal as “an empty trench coat” because he had very little to do with the actual report that went on the air. Well, Tina Brown is an empty dress. Her catalog of how Rather was not involved in the news operation is contradicted by a statement in the report that he personally assured CBS News President Andrew Heyward that the story was vetted, verified and documented. It is “big,” Rather told Heyward. And he, Rather, said that he had done more fact-checking on this story than anything since Watergate. 

Brown ignores that, focusing on other aspects of the report. She says, “Consider the facts. He didn’t meet or talk to the immediate source of the ropy documents, disgruntled former guardsman Bill Burkett. He didn’t know that Burkett was not the ultimate source but the handoff from an unnamed individual no one at CBS had been able (or even tried very hard) to talk to. He didn’t send up any red flags that the documents in dispute were photocopies and therefore could never be truly authenticated (even though to some it might seem Investigative Reporting 101). He never even sat through a screening of the ’60 Minutes Wednesday’ piece before it aired. He left such micromanagement to his trusted producer, the indefatigable Mary Mapes–now ejected along with all the others in the CBS News chain of command responsible for the segment.”

All of this was recounted in the report. But that is why the statement she ignored about Rather assuring Heyward that the story is true is so important. If Rather played a very little role in putting together the story, why did he tell Heyward that the broadcast was solid? The source of this Rather statement is none other than Heyward himself, so it cannot be dismissed as rumor or hearsay. Simply put, Rather cannot have it both ways. If he had very little role in the broadcast, why did he tell Heyward that he had done more fact-checking on this story than anything since Watergate? Was Rather lying to Heyward? If so, that’s a firing offense. On the other hand, if Rather played no role and still put his face on the flawed and discredited finished product, shouldn’t that be a firing offense, too? 

There are two options, neither one pleasant for Rather. The acceptable CBS version is, in effect, that Rather lied to Heyward and that Rather had little time for the broadcast because he was overworked and tired from other assignments.

It may be the case that Tina Brown didn’t read the report and didn’t come across Rather’s amazing statement vouching for the broadcast. She may have skimmed the press reports, which ignored it. If so, she was not unique. It was obvious that some other journalists covered the report without reading it. In this age of the Internet, when it was easily available from the CBS News and other web sites, many journalists would rather talk about it using reports about the report.  That’s lazy and inexcusable. They missed some of the big bombshells that should have forced Rather from the anchor chair.

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