John Leo

 What CBS produced was the worst press scandal of our era, revealing a depth of ineptitude and arrogance that even the network?s worst critics hardly suspected. Internet bloggers shredded the 60 Minutes story within three hours of the broadcast?s end. Some bloggers were challenging the authenticity of the documents while the program was still being shown on the West Coast. Within a day, the mainstream press picked up the story and further devastated 60 Minutes. After five days, with the CBS story totally discredited, Rather called his critics ?partisan? and said they ?can?t deny the core truth of this story.? He also said that if there was something wrong with the documents, he would like to be the one to break the story--a story that had been broken days before but amazingly not noticed by him.

 When the mistakes-were-made semiapology finally came, Rather emitted the phrase ?if I knew then what I know now.? But all he had to do to know it then was to turn on his computer or pick up a copy of the Washington Post. The network hostility to Internet commentary was obvious. One CBS news executive referred to bloggers as people writing in their pajamas (i.e., not members of our esteemed guild). Rather associated them with rumor and propaganda. This seems to mean that many in the mainstream press still don?t understand bloggers and tend to associate them with the Drudge Report on its worst day. Bloggers make their case with hyperlinks to primary sources and other data. Arguments without authority count for nothing, and soft-headed analyses and hoaxes are quickly exposed. As RealClear Politics said, it?s a fast-moving, ?very transparent, self-correcting environment ultimately based on facts.?

 Often contrasted with the entrenched big-time media, the bloggers are becoming part of the mainstream. Think of them as the outsourced post-publication checking department of the big-time news media. Dan Rather, or somebody at CBS, should surely take a look.

 One good blogger, Jay Rosen of New York University?s journalism school, calls the CBS fiasco ?just one part of a massive institutional failure at CBS, much of it still to be uncovered.? It produced ?a full-fledged credibility crisis? and an opportunity for CBS?s detractors to ?damage beyond recognition one of the big players.? Just so. But the goal should be to make CBS more honest, not to delegitimize it or drive it out of business. The move to exclude CBS?s Bob Schieffer from the presidential debates is ominous. Schieffer had nothing to do with Rathergate. Already there are calls for congressional hearings--a bad idea. Do we want an all-out vengeful assault on CBS, or do we simply want the network to come to its senses and play stories straight?

John Leo

John Leo is editor of and a former contributing editor at U.S. News and World Report.

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