The jig is up. The game is over. CBS tried to energize the country into voting against President Bush by highlighting forged documents it said would prove Bush's failure to serve honorably in the Texas Air National Guard. The smoking gun went up in smoke. Once caught, CBS and Dan Rather could have responded with a simple apology. Instead, they went ballistic -- and now must pay the price for their defiance.
For more than a week, Dan Rather responded like a cornered politician, blaming a vast right-wing conspiracy of "partisan political activists" for unfairly trying to change the subject from Bush's alleged misdeeds to CBS's increasingly obvious misdeeds.
In an interview with USA Today, Rather became seriously overwrought, charging that his "partisan" critics want him ... dead? What? Look at Rather's glimpse inside the conservative mind, as he sees it and decrees it: "Because he won't report it our way, we're going to hang something bad around his neck and choke him with it, check him out of existence if we can , if not, make him feel great pain."
Rather's journalistic defenses weren't any more effective than his political attacks. First, CBS cited handwriting expert Marcel Matley and Gen. Bobby Hodges to vouch for its documents. But soon, Gen. Hodges had something else to say on the matter: CBS never showed him the documents, and when he finally did see them, he said they were forgeries. Matley also contradicted CBS, maintaining he could not authenticate the documents, because they're copies. The widow and son of Lt. Col. Jerry Killian, the supposed author of the phony memos, also denounced the documents as fake. The supposed superior pressing on Killian as described in the memos had retired 18 months earlier.
Innumerable news outlets easily found the inconsistencies and untruths within days -- even hours -- yet CBS, which claims it spent five years on the story, found ... nothing wrong?
The real turning point of the Rathergate scandal came when ABC interviewed two document authenticators hired by CBS who said they warned CBS just days before the offending segment aired that they found "red flags" in the documents. The "honest mistake" defense was dead. CBS was now outed as complicit in this very ugly plot.
None of these developments were allowed inside Dan Rather's hermetically sealed news bubble in his on-air defenses on Sept. 10 and Sept. 14. The ultimate insult to the viewing public came on the next edition of "60 Minutes," a week after CBS aired the original fraud. The only guest was Marian Carr Knox, a secretary and typist for Lt. Col. Killian. The new CBS line, manufactured after the network flew Mrs. Knox to New York for a sitdown with Rather: Here's a single guest on camera who says our procured documents are phony, but she says the substance of them are true. And since that's all that counts, we continue to stand by our story.
What a complete dodge. A fake is a fake. Journalism schools don't teach that it's OK to fake a document to smoke out a larger "truth." (Would CBS endorse police departments planting evidence on criminal suspects who they believe are guilty for the larger "truth"?)
They may still pretend to dismiss conservative critics, but CBS and others will probably pay the most attention to the bottom line, and that broadcast news ratings meltdown continues. In 2001, the American Journalism Review reported the "CBS Evening News" lost half its viewership from 1981 to 2001. Last week, the show averaged 6.7 million viewers, which still looks powerful next to everyday cable news ratings, but hardly represents the old hegemony of the Big Three over the political process.
When I titled my book "Weapons of Mass Distortion: The Coming Meltdown of the Liberal Media," I had no idea Dan Rather and CBS would provide such a blatant show-and-tell to prove my point. In its early days, the Big Three ruled the roost, and critics were treated like gnats -- a small annoyance, easily ignored.