First comes the crime: Dan Rather's late hit on President Bush's Air National Guard service, featuring what were almost immediately revealed to be forged documents.
Then comes the coverup: 12 days of CBS stonewalling, with Dan Rather using his evening news platform to (a) call his critics "partisan political operatives," (b) claim falsely that the documents were authenticated by experts, and (c) claim that he had "solid sources," which turned out to be a rabid anti-Bush partisan with a history of, shall we say, prolific storytelling.
Now comes the twist: The independent investigation -- clueless, uncomprehending and in its own innocent way disgraceful -- pretends that this fiasco was in no way politically motivated.
The investigation does note that the show's producer called Joe Lockhart of the Kerry campaign to alert him to the story and to urge him to contact the purveyor of the incriminating documents. It concludes that this constitutes an "appearance of political bias." What would producer Mary Mapes have had to do to go beyond appearance? Show up at the Kerry headquarters?
CBS had been pursuing the story for five years. Five years! The Manhattan Project took three. Five years for a minor episode in a 30-year-old byway in the life of the president? This story had been vetted not only in two Texas gubernatorial races but twice more by the national media, once in 2000 and then yet again earlier in 2004 when Michael Moore's "deserter" charge and Terry McAuliffe's "AWOL" charge touched off a media frenzy that culminated in a Newsweek cover.
To what, then, does the report attribute Mapes's great-white-whale obsession with the story? Her Texas roots. I kid you not. She comes from Texas and likes Texas stories. You believe that and you will believe that a 1972 typewriter can tuck the letter "i" right up against the umbrella of the letter "f" (as can Microsoft Word).
Did Mapes and Rather devote a fraction of the resources they gave this story to a real scandal, such as the oil-for-food scandal at the United Nations, or contrary partisan political charges, such as those brought by the Swift boat vets against John Kerry? On the United Nations, no interest. On Kerry, what CBS did do was ad hominem investigative stories on the Swift boat veterans themselves, rather than an examination of the charges. Do you perceive a direction to these inclinations?
Now comes the National Guard story, the most blindingly partisan bungle in recent journalistic history, and the august investigative panel, CBS News and most of the mainstream media do not have a clue. The bungle is attributed to haste and sloppiness. Haste, yes. To get the story out in time to damage, perhaps fatally, the president's chances of reelection.
This is not an isolated case. In fact the case is a perfect illustration of an utterly commonplace phenomenon: the mainstream media's obliviousness to its own liberal bias.
I do not attribute this to bad faith. I attribute it to (as Marx would say) false consciousness -- contracted by living in the liberal media cocoons of New York, Washington and Los Angeles, in which any other worldview is simply and truly inconceivable. This myopia was most perfectly captured by Pauline Kael's famous remark after Nixon's 1972 landslide: "I don't know how Richard Nixon could have won. I don't know anybody who voted for him."
Multiple polls of the media elite have confirmed Kael's inadvertent sociological insight. One particularly impartial poll, taken by the Freedom Forum in 1996, found that of 139 Washington bureau chiefs and congressional correspondents, 89 percent supported Bill Clinton in the previous election, vs. 7 percent for George H.W. Bush. The rest of America went 43 percent to 37 percent.
Some argue that personal allegiance does not matter because it is possible to be partisan at home and yet consciously bias-free at work.
Possible, yes. Actual? The Project for Excellence in Journalism did a careful study of mainstream media stories in September and October. The numbers are stunning.
To take one example, Oct. 1-14, 2004: Percent of stories about Bush that are negative -- 59 percent. Percent of stories about Kerry that are negative -- 25 percent. Stories favorable to Bush? 14 percent. Favorable to Kerry? 34 percent.
That is not a difference. That is a chasm. And you do not have to be a weatherman to ascertain wind direction. When, in February 2003, Gallup asked Americans their perception of media bias, 45 percent said the media were too liberal, 15 percent said they were too conservative. That's 3 to 1.
Bias spectacularly, if redundantly, confirmed by Rathergate. All that is missing is a signed confession.
Charles Krauthammer is a 1987 Pulitzer Prize winner, 1984 National Magazine Award winner, and a columnist for The Washington Post since 1985.
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