Jewish World Review Jan. 18, 2005 / 8 Shevat 5765

Paul Greenberg

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It makes you wonder why Rather got into journalism in the first place

http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com | Well, dawgone, people do still get fired. And independent investigators do turn in impartial reports.


So consider this a good word for CBS after so many bad ones about the network — about its arrogance, its bias and its general, insufferable hubris.


When CBS News finally decided to investigate itself, it had the good sense to go outside its teeming organization. It left the investigating to two good men of unquestioned integrity — former AP head honcho Louis Boccardi and former Attorney General Dick Thornburgh. Their assignment: Get to the bottom of Rathergate and tell CBS how to prevent another one.


They did.


Even more impressive than their fair-and-balanced report was that CBS acted on it, firing four hotshots who had thoroughly embarrassed themselves, their employer and American journalism in general. For once justice was done.


This time there was none of this "We stick by our story" and "fake-but-accurate" business. Good for CBS. And a confession: Some of us thought we'd never see the day. There may be hope for this business after all.


Of course there's always somebody in the outfit who never gets the word. Mary Mapes, one of the chief culprits in this fiasco if not the chiefest, sounds as defensive as the Maginot Line — and as effective. Her story line this time: No mistakes were made and, if any were, she had the ill grace to add, somebody else made them.


This is the same highly-touted, Emmy Award-winning Mary Mapes who, just for lagniappe, helped put her dubious source for this story — a long-time and well-known Bush-hater in Texas politics — in contact with the Kerry campaign. Talk about understatement, the investigators called that action "inappropriate." It was also highly revealing.

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Yet the investigators still could not find any evidence of political bias in all this. They must not watch Dan Rather on the "CBS Evening News." Is there be any doubt where he's coming from? Can anyone imagine him trumpeting an equally dubious story from, say, the Swift Boat Veterans? There's no sucker for a phony story like somebody who wants to believe it.


This was a very inside job. Dan Rather wasn't betrayed by his producer so much as by his own prejudices. Recommended reading: Bernard Goldberg's book about CBS and the rest of the once mainstream media; it's entitled, appropriately enough, "Bias."


And yet Mr. Rather is going to stay on the air for another few months. No doubt as a daily reminder of what's wrong with CBS and the Old Media in general.


The network's president, Leslie Moonves, noted in extenuation-and-mitigation that Mr. Rather (a) had been stressed at the time (what editor isn't?) and (b) was going to step down as anchor anyway. To put it plainer, the top banana is being let down easy. Rank has its privileges.


CBS may have been tough on the lower-downs, but the network seems to have lost its nerve on approaching Dan Rather's electronic throne. Its detailed report does confirm what any avid watcher of the news will already have suspected: CBS' star anchorman just parrots the words others write for him. These talking heads really are talking heads, not thinking ones.


And now tough-talking Dan Rather has been let off lightly because he was only mouthing others' copy — like some mindless robot. This is the kind of defense that in a way is worse than the offense. At least those who concocted this story showed some initiative and creativity.


Besides, what excuse could there be for Dan Rather's own, original, 12-day-long defense of this story after it became obvious it was bogus? As usual, the cover-up was worse than the original scandal. You'd think somebody who'd covered Watergate would have learned better.


If any more proof of Dan Rather's bias is needed, this report notes that even after all this, he still believes in the content of this thoroughly discredited non-story. As if the dubious documents were only a minor detail, a matter of style rather than what made the whole story news, since the gist of the smear has been out there since George W. Bush has been in politics.


We don't seem to be talking about journalism here but blind faith. Dan Rather, it was clear long before this scandal erupted, is a True Believer. He sounds less like a newsman than the sort of freelance ideologue who fills up my e-mail every day with conspiracy theories.


It's all enough to make a fella wonder why he went into this business in the first place. Yes, there were the usual reasons: fame, ego, adventure, power! All the temptations that youth is heir to. But somewhere in all that dense undergrowth of ambition surely there was also a desire to find some elusive truth, to draw out its meaning for readers, to find the real story — not just make one up out of bits and pieces and phony evidence.


I wanted to be in that number when those saints went marching in — William L. Shirer and Dorothy Thompson, Rebecca West and Murray Kempton. Some of us even dreamed of being the next . . . Dan Rather! And now the icon lies shattered. But that doesn't hurt so much as the realization that the shiny image was never all it was cracked up to be.

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JWR contributor Paul Greenberg, editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, has won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. Send your comments by clicking here.

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