The perils of Dan-nial

Jonah Goldberg

9/17/2004 12:00:00 AM - Jonah Goldberg

When people are in deep, deep - China Syndrome deep - denial about their predicament, you can get a really good sense of how they see the world. Denial, after all, is simply the place where your personal interpretation of reality splits off from the objective facts. When Hitler ordered massive counterstrikes using forces that no longer existed, you can be sure his generals understood that the boss had taken leave of this world.

At least that's what comes to mind as I listen to Dan Rather rant about a world that can only be seen by CBS employees through the tinted windows of their conference rooms.

"I try to look people in the eye and tell them the truth," Rather told the Washington Post's Howard Kurtz in an interview the same day CBS more or less admitted their now famous Bush memos are fakes. "I don't back up. I don't back down. I don't cave when the pressure gets too great from these partisan political ideological forces."

He added: "This is not about me. . I recognize that those who didn't want the information out and tried to discredit the story are trying to make it about me, and I accept that."

What a hero. What a paladin for truth, justice and the American way. Here's the problem: Rather isn't standing up to partisan political forces. Indeed, among the forces that have been most energetic in making Rather look ridiculous are the Washington Post and ABC News. The New York Times and NPR haven't been as good, but they have hardly ignored the fact that Rather shot himself in the foot and kept holding down the trigger as he worked his way up his body. Indeed, even CBS News has adopted the position that the memos are fakes but the story is true.

As a conservative, I'm open to the suggestion that the aforementioned critics are "partisan political ideological forces." But I doubt any reasonable person would put them in the camp of George W. Bush. Rather would sound more sane if he said Hobbits are conspiring against him.

Now, Dan Rather is fairly famous for always - always - ascribing criticism to "partisans." Rather has called liberal media bias "one of the great political myths." He told the New York Post a few years ago that the charge of liberal bias is really just a way for conservatives to intimidate reporters, "to force you to report the news the way they want you to report it."

"My job is to be accurate and fair, an honest broker of information. Period," he wrote in "I Remember," his 1991 memoir. "It is a job that automatically puts me down in places Sen. Helms dislikes."

I think this illuminates the nature of liberal bias in the media. I've never believed that media bias is a conspiracy. It's more like background radiation, a certain set of unquestioned assumptions that tend to irradiate everything - the food, the water, the verbs, the nouns of mainstream news coverage. A place like CBS News is a real hot zone where the bias Geiger counter can break its arm off. For example, Daniel Schorr - the longtime CBS News reporter who now spends his time at National Public Radio - wrote in his autobiography, "Staying Tuned," about how many powerful people have called him an S.O.B. (though they didn't use the initials). Walter Cronkite himself blurbs the book as "Schorr's detailed report on why numerous heads of state and other officials have called him a [S.O.B.]"

Now, here's the thing. While Presidents and senators call Schorr the son of something that rhymes with witch, it's always for reporting from the left. Presidents Johnson and Nixon both called Schorr an S.O.B., but, as he freely admits, it was when Schorr zinged them from the left. Schorr boasts, for example, that his early "reporting" of Nixon "reflected the generally progressive" policies of the Nixon administration. But, when the creator of the EPA and affirmative action showed his "hostility to social betterment and civil rights," Schorr becomes a you-know-what and proudly so. This story, in various forms, repeats itself endlessly in his book.

Rather comes from the same school. Indeed, so does Walter Cronkite, who insisted for decades he wasn't liberal but now admits he's a fairly dull and conventional one. For years, Rather has spun his reporting in such a way that the government is an engine of progress and goodness, and that those who disagree are the very forces good journalism is supposed to combat.

Indeed, Rather's thinking has become axiomatic: Good reporting offends conservatives. I am a good reporter. Therefore, anyone who objects to my work is a conservative. And, of course, conservative objections are, by definition, illegitimate objections. After all, liberal media bias is a myth.

The fact is, good reporting isn't liberal or conservative - though it can be either. What good reporting does is expose those who would lie for a "higher truth." Which, ironically, is why so much of the criticism of Rather is not really "partisan" at all - it's good reporting.