We Interrupt this Program to Restore Some Sanity

1/11/2005

The Muse varied from routine last night to watch CBS Evening News. I was drawn to the broadcast by the same twisted allure that compels us to gawk as we drive past a car accident. It isn’t every day a network is forced to lead its newscast with a scandalous story concerning its own newsroom, so this was not to be missed.

CBS’s self-excoriation over the Bush document debacle did not disappoint, save for the fact that Dan Rather had apparently taken up residence in Saddam’s spider hole and ducked the broadcast. But Bob Schieffer’s anchorage of the scathing report on the matter satisfied my bloodlust and their coverage did not spare the rod.

My beef has not so much to do with CBS’s coverage of its implosion, but the ballyhooed 225-page report that chronicled how it happened. For, in the Muse’s view, General Thornburgh and Louis Boccardi wildly missed the mark on two essential findings: that there was no intentional bias and that blame for the debacle does not extend to Rather and CBS News President Andrew Heyward.

Before the Muse is once again confused with his friends on the right, I should disclose three of my own biases. First, I am a Dan Rather fan. Second, I supported and voted for John Kerry. And third, I absolutely believe Bush used family influence to enter into and skate through his dubious National Guard service. I wanted the story to be accurate and see it contribute to Bush’s defeat.

But it wasn’t and it didn’t and it shouldn’t have come anywhere near the airwaves. And the fact that it did demonstrates nothing short of political intent and a “see no evil, hear no evil” mentality on the part of Messrs. Rather and Heyward. I’m old school in that regard. I prefer my journalism honest–even if it doesn’t suit my point of view.

That a story about documents which potentially exposed a sitting president as being AWOL during wartime did not receive extra scrutiny is simply astonishing. That Rather and Heyward didn’t demand it is an abdication of duty. And what in the name of Edward R. Murrow is Sixty Minutes Wednesday producer Mary Mapes doing calling the Kerry campaign in advance of the story to give them a heads-up?

Perhaps the greatest irony in this episode is that it has effectively killed the story of how Texas Air National Guardsman Bush lost his pilot’s license and then managed to swing an honorable discharge and early release. That much is not in dispute, but the whole truth concerning his service will never be known. CBS has forever tainted the story. It’s safe to say no major broadcast outlet or newspaper will touch it now and history is the victim.

Equally and more contemporaneously appalling is the lack of pursuit of the corollary story: Who in the hell is responsible for the conspiracy to dupe a network news organization in an attempt to take down a sitting president? Is this not a matter worth journalistic exploration? Unfortunately, it doesn’t involve Britney Spears or the latest episode of “The Apprentice” so this one will be ceded to the amateur conspiracy theorists. That is tragic. Some wag with a word processor nearly derailed democracy and media nation is looking the other way. Was it Texas Democrats, Karl Rove, Osama? We’ll probably never know.

Sadly, CBS’s ineptitude also played into the hands of the most biased network of them all: Fox News. They’ll probably win a Pulitzer Prize for “best smug analysis” before they are done yapping about this. It’s a specious comparison, but Fox has a “glass house” issue of its own regarding election coverage. If you don’t believe it, check Robert Greenwald’s “Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism” and watch the out-take of Fox Chief Political Correspondent Carl Cameron fawning over the president and telling him about his wife’s service on the Bush campaign. Cameron, by the way, was later forced to apologize for filing a false story with fake Kerry quotes on the Fox News Web site . But that’s sour grapes.

The bigger issue here is that the Fourth Estate has suffered yet another blow to its credibility and the result is apt to be less serious journalism and more entertainment news. That, friends, is an enormous threat to our freedom. Mr. Rather, the camera is blinking now.

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