Dan's fall is Nixonian
Rather's smearing of his critics was even worse than the bogus hit on W
To the end, Gunga Dan liked to play the part of the crusading journalist, a regular reporter just digging up the facts. That was his TV persona. In real life, his hubris made him more like Richard Nixon than Walter Cronkite. And like Nixon, the coverup was his downfall.
The CBS announcement that Dan Rather will give up his anchor chair in March made zero mention of Rathergate, the big-time blunder in which he used fake documents to charge that President Bush got favored treatment in the National Guard 30 years ago.
I guess we're supposed to believe it was mere coincidence that Rather is packing even before the network's probe is released. Or we're supposed to believe that, as Rather claimed, he and his bosses had been discussing his retirement over the summer.
Whatever. The fact-fudging was perfectly consistent with the dishonest way CBS handled the story from Day One.
First it lied by saying the documents it used on the tainted Sept. 8 broadcast had been authenticated by experts. In fact, three of the four experts said they warned the network they could not be certain all the documents were real.
Still, CBS dug in its heels, making the ridiculous claim that even if the documents were bogus, the gist of the story was true. It introduced a shocking new journalism standard - a "preponderance of the evidence" to justify going with the National Guard story.
Bad as all that was, Rather managed to make it worse. He went on the offensive against bloggers and others raising questions, smearing them with sweeping charges of partisanship. "I don't cave when the pressure gets too great from these partisan political ideological forces," he told The Washington Post. He told The Wall Street Journal that doubters attacked the documents "because they can't deny the fundamental truths of the analysis."
It was rancid hypocrisy, given that it was Rather who, in the eyes of many Americans, had turned CBS into a subsidiary of the Democratic Party. And for such a media bigwig to accuse anyone who doubted him of political bias only fed the eat-the-media frenzy, where every story was being viewed through blue state/red state divisions.
It was all so, well, Nixonian: Accuse your critics of partisanship and wrap yourself in the flag. A younger Rather had a famous run-in with Nixon, but apparently he learned something from the disgraced President. Tricky Dick became Tricky Dan.
Indeed, when the public outcry forced CBS to retract the Bush story nearly two weeks after it ran, the network said only that it could not authenticate the documents. It has never admitted they were fake. Ever since it gave the probe into what went wrong to two independent executives, the network has gone silent on the subject.
Having outsourced its ethics and all responsibility for accountability, Rather & Co. pretended it was business as usual during the final six weeks of the campaign.
In one sense, it was. Even as the network planned an election-eve hit on Bush's management of the war in Iraq, its ratings continued to fall. Mired in a distant third place in a three-network race, it was sometimes outdrawn by Fox cable.
Maybe that embarrassment prompted the knock on Dan's door. After all, TV news is a big business, and Rather was proving no better at that than he was at gathering the facts.
Originally published on November 24, 2004