The E-mail on last week?s Rather-gate column was almost entirely furious with CBS. About 95 percent of some 300 letters and E-mails attacked the network, and all but four or five of those messages denounced my oh-so-moderate suggestion that the goal is not a vengeful assault on CBS but safeguards for fairer reporting. ?No,? wrote one reader, ?we really want a vengeful assault.?
Normally, the mail hovers around 50 percent pro and 50 percent con, partly because many readers greatly enjoy pointing out my many deficiencies. A lopsided reaction like this indicates a huge amount of antipress animosity, while here in Manhattan news circles the Rather incident is regarded as a simple mistake and not a very important one at that. The war over press bias has reached a boil that may threaten the whole news business, but the industry seems to think that nothing much is going on. It?s just those yahoos in flyover country getting all excited again.
In truth, the news business had a disastrous summer. In July, a Senate intelligence committee and an official British investigation both concluded that President Bush had been on firm ground when he spoke the famous 16 words in his 2003 State of the Union message (that the British had learned Saddam Hussein had sought to acquire uranium in Africa). When the 16 words appeared to be untrue, the press endlessly trumpeted them, often on the front page, but when Bush drew heavy support from the two investigations, you could hardly find the news with a magnifying glass. In the New York Times, the British report was carried way inside the paper and read like a muddled translation from classical Urdu. This seems to happen a lot when the Times is forced to report news it doesn?t like. On July 25, the Washington Post press critic, Howard Kurtz, reported that his newspaper had carried 96 references to the issue when Bush appeared to be wrong and only two after the revelation that he looked to be right. The totals for the three major networks and three elite newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times, were 302 before and nine after. According to Kurtz, CBS never did get around to mentioning that the investigations had supported the president.