Jewish World Review Sept. 29, 2004/ 14 Tishrei 5765
The meaning of Dan
Much as we'd like to put Dan Rather and CBS to bed without supper, one final point needs a hearing: why this story matters.
Often during the past couple of weeks, I've heard from readers asking, "Why are you obsessing about Dan Rather? What's up with this attack on CBS?"
While most commentators have focused on Rather's clumsy handling of the now-infamous fake documents and CBS's perceived liberal bias, the story isn't really about Dan Rather or CBS. Nor is it about President George W. Bush or Sen. John F. Kerry.
They may be interesting and newsworthy subjects, but all are relatively minor players in the far grander, more enduring narrative of America's free press. While Bush, Kerry, Rather and others will fade from memory, some of them soon, the Fourth Estate has a permanent role on the stage of American freedom and democracy.
If we're vigilant.
Disturbingly, even other journalists have expressed concern that some are "bashing" Rather unnecessarily out of bias or out of professional jealousy. One wrote in an on-line discussion among editorial writers: "Rather made a mistake . but let's not forget . that the content of the false memos was essentially absolutely true."
More than a few Rather sympathizers have tweaked the popular antiwar mantra to fit the circumstance: "When Rather (formerly Clinton) lied, nobody died."
This fascinating insight is offered in the spirit of Rather's initial apology, in which he conceded that maybe the documents weren't real, but the story was accurate. With that sentiment, Rather abandoned the doctrine of fact-based reporting for a spiritualist approach to "known" truths.
As implied by Rather and CBS, "everybody knows" that Bush received preferential treatment when he was admitted to the National Guard, thus avoiding combat in Vietnam, and that he failed to fulfill his duty. Which is a little like a jury saying, well, the evidence doesn't prove guilt, but we all know he did it anyway. Guilty!
Last time I checked, we don't do that in this country. We can debate the merits of Bush's National Guard service until we all perish from boredom, but in the news business, facts matter. Everything else is opinion.
Fact: Rather and his producers knew in advance that experts had questions about the authenticity of the documents they used in their "60 Minutes II" segment on Bush's military service, yet the network proceeded anyway.
The attack on Rather and CBS is, thus, justified, while any suggestion that some overarching "truth" eclipses the problem of sloppy ethics is simply appalling. For any journalist to assert that the essence of the story makes excusable CBS's willful deception is both stunning and depressing.
This breach comes at a time when journalism is suffering a crisis of credibility following a string of insults, from Jayson Blair of the New York Times to Jack Kelley of USA Today. Every time a reporter is caught fabricating or cutting ethical corners, the public trust upon which a free press sustains itself is compromised.
Meanwhile, bashing the mainstream media has become America's favorite pastime, especially with the advent of the Internet and blogs. Every time bloggers catch a newspaper reporter or television personality in a flub - and they do with reliable regularity - little electronic sparks fly and virtual champagne flutes clink in the blogosphere.
Bloggers were the first to bring Rather to the mat and have enjoyed a series of successful challenges to the bigger dogs. But there's a misconception that The Media are part of one monolithic corporate kennel and that all outlets are equally culpable.
The truth is, most newspapers work hard at maintaining credibility, admitting mistakes as soon as possible and researching ways to improve quality. Most also have an ethics policy, and many have an ombudsman to address public concerns.
These are all part of an earnest effort to protect institutional credibility and to retain reader trust. So when a broadcaster of Rather's clout and a network of CBS's reach compromise standards to run a story that may not be quite true, the ripple effect of distrust has far-reaching implications and, unfairly, consequences for all journalists.
It is one thing to make an honest mistake, an inadvertent error of fact or recall, as we all do. But a dishonest mistake - knowingly using flawed information to advance a story - is unconscionable and, ultimately, damaging to democracy.
That's why this story matters. Outrage - especially from fellow toilers in the field - is the only appropriate response.
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