Jonah Goldberg

The growing backlash from bigwig liberal journalists and the Kerry campaign over the Dan Rather story reminds me of story about the renowned physicist Wolfgang Pauli. Presented with an unimpressive paper by a lesser physicist, Pauli famously complained, "It's not even wrong."

Basically, the liberal media establishment is falling back on a dual argument. First, bigwigs like Vanity Fair's Michael Wolff are hewing to the "fake but true" defense. The second comes from the journalism school graybeards who insist this monumental foul-up was the result of CBS' desperate pursuit of ratings and ad revenues - but perish the though media bias played a role.

Journalism professor Phillip Meyer, writing in USA Today, asserts: "Dan Rather was not out to get George W. Bush. He was out to get a good story. And the desire for a good story, in the face of competition from all of the varieties of new and old media, is a powerful - and sometimes blinding - incentive." CBS insiders have echoed this version, saying it was a sprint to break the story and score ratings that forced these unfortunate errors. How convenient: Liberal journalists blame capitalism for their mistakes.

Such soaring assertions are weighted down by the ballast of too many inconvenient facts. Mary Mapes, the very liberal producer whose career is going the way of the dodo, has been working on the Bush Air National Guard (BANG) story for five years - more than a year longer than Bush has been president. That's not a sprint, it's a marathon. Meanwhile, as Tim Graham of the Media Research Center has documented, Dan Rather has a long history of saying Vietnam is irrelevant - when such issues hurt Democrats and very relevant when it hurts Republicans. For example, in August - when John Kerry was getting shellacked by the Swift Boat Vets for Truth - he told Broadcasting & Cable: "In the end, what difference does it make what one candidate or the other did or didn't do during the Vietnam War? In some ways, that war is as distant as the Napoleonic campaigns. What's far more import is this: Do they have an exit strategy for Iraq? If so, what is it? How will they address the national deficit? And what are the chances their plans will work?"

Of course, at the time, Dan Rather was working very hard on Bush's activities during the Napoleonic campaigns, er, I mean Vietnam War.

This doesn't mean that CBS wasn't rushing for big ratings. I'm sure it was. But it was rushing for big ratings on an anti-Bush story. It is flatly inconceivable that "60 Minutes" would throw out its usual safeguards for an anti-Kerry story brought to it by, say, the Swift Boat Vets, let alone a guy as sketchy as the anti-Bush activist Bill Burkett - a source Dan Rather insisted was (snort, chortle) "unimpeachable." And you have to be higher than a moonbat to believe that producers from "60 Minutes" would do anything that even faintly smacked of collusion with the Bush campaign.

But here's the real reason the effort to make this about the BANG story will bust. No one cares anymore. Oh sure, anti-Bush liberals think the story is hugely important - which should tip you off to why Dan Rather thinks it's hugely important - but not because they care so much. It's because they think it will hurt Bush. No one else cares. We heard about it in 2000 - when Mapes was already a year into her sleuthing - and we heard about it endlessly this summer. And we're hearing about it again now. And - ta da! - no one cares.

There's this false parallelism which the anti-Bush media and Kerry campaign are desperate to make real. Because Kerry claims that what he did 30 years ago is hugely relevant to his candidacy, he's made what he did 30 years ago fair game. Now, whether the Swift Boat assaults on Kerry's medals were fair or not is a debate for another day. But criticizing what Kerry did upon his return - meeting with the enemy, throwing away his ribbons and/or medals, etc. - is certainly fair game.

Regardless, none of this makes Bush's Vietnam era service particularly relevant. Bush isn't running on what he did three decades ago, he's running on what he's done over the last three years. If Michael Jordan were running for president and touting his basketball career as a qualification, would that mean the press should devote itself to Bush's experience as basketball player?

So, sure, maybe Bush did coast a bit at the end of his six year service. Maybe he went into the Guard to avoid Vietnam. Maybe not. The story's murky in parts, with fair and unfair charges blurred together. But whatever the facts are, CBS doesn't have a free pass to skip the facts. That it thought otherwise is the only relevant scandal. CBS ran a false story that wouldn't have been relevant if it were true. In other words, it wasn't even wrong.


Jonah Goldberg

Jonah Goldberg is editor-at-large of National Review Online,and the author of the forthcoming book The Tyranny of Clichés. You can reach him via Twitter @JonahNRO.
 
TOWNHALL DAILY: Be the first to read Jonah Goldberg's column. Sign up today and receive Townhall.com daily lineup delivered each morning to your inbox.