One year after the credibility of CBS News collapsed over their use of fake memos against George W. Bush, lame attempts to rehabilitate CBS seem to be everywhere. Dan Rather is now telling anyone who will listen that after defending the report, then apologizing for it, he now thinks it's true again. Al Gore is suggesting Rather was demoted because the all-powerful White House was angry. At a ceremony for the news and documentary Emmy awards, ABC's Ted Koppel and MSNBC boss Rick Kaplan scrambled like the King's men reassembling Humpty Dumpty. But the eggy mess remains.
In his tribute to Rather, Koppel proclaimed: "Those of us who know you, Dan, those of us who have competed against you, know you to be a man of honesty and integrity and decency." It would have been a great line -- for a roast. But nobody laughed, because Ted was dead serious at this liberal media gathering. Koppel acknowledged weakly that "it appears" Rather "made a mistake" on that National Guard report. "I would simply urge your most vociferous critics to take a page from the White House's own playbook. When one of their own makes a mistake, they stress the importance of looking to the future and of not playing the blame game."
That prompted hearty applause from the assembled scribes. This was not a ceremony dedicated to excellence and accuracy in journalism. It was a pep rally for Team Journalism, still in a feisty battle with Team Bush. Disgraced Dan Rather drew a standing ovation that lasted over a minute.
Rick Kaplan seconded the liberal emotion. "As was the practice in all he did, Dan was meticulously careful to be fair and balanced and accurate." Maybe he was referring to Meticulous Dan attending a Democratic fundraiser in Texas with his daughter and Tom DeLay's partisan prosecutor, Ronnie Earle? I don't know. But then, who is newsroom boss Kaplan -- who never found a presidential golf outing or a stay in the Lincoln Bedroom during the Clinton years to be an appearance problem -- to judge appearances?
The media were all about accuracy and fairness, Kaplan insisted, until conservatives muddied the waters. "When did we allow those with questionable agendas to take the lead and convince people of something quite the opposite? It's shameful." Conservatives should be ashamed when they try to convince people it's not fair to take faxed copies of a Microsoft Word document and try to pass it off as 30 years old? What Kaplan and Co. were saying is that it's not corrupt to lie about conservatives. It's only corrupt to lose to them.
The same message emanates from the new George Clooney movie, "Good Night and Good Luck," which glorifies the so-called Golden Age when CBS's Edward R. Murrow threw every media dirty trick into a "See It Now" attack against the left's hate object, Sen. Joseph McCarthy.
Jack Shafer's takedown for the liberal website Slate notes the 1954 Murrow show Clooney adores was actually a hatchet job. Shafer noted that "The program's manipulative and partisan techniques were enough to creep out two of McCarthy's dedicated foes in the press, liberals John Cogley and Gilbert Seldes."
But Dan Rather and CBS often have shown their belief that good journalism depends mostly on selecting good targets; whether the shots fired at those targets are true or ethical isn't really the point. All that matters is: Was the target destroyed?
We shouldn't be surprised, therefore, when Clooney told the Village Voice that "Dan Rather loves, loves, loves this movie." Clooney expressed sadness at Rather's predicament, quoting Marvin Kalb. "What's important to remember about Rather is that the story was right, but the source was wrong." It was fake, but accurate.
New burps and rages are coming out of a book by Rather's memo-mangling producer, Mary Mapes, risibly titled "Truth and Duty." In an early excerpt, she attacked "hyperconservative" blogs, and couldn't believe the "mainstream press" would fall for the "far right" blogger critiques. Mapes warmly remembered Rather signing off a phone call "by saying something that had become a shorthand for us over the years: "F-E-A." That was code for "F--- 'Em All," a sentiment that needed to be expressed from time to time in any newsroom."
That's a sorry slogan for Dan Rather, who routinely claimed it's his job to be fair and accurate, and, as he said in 1997, "I do agree that one test of a reporter is how often he or she is able to keep their emotions out of what they are doing and keep their own biases and agendas out of it." Rather perpetually flunked that test. To honor Rather now, after his transparently dishonest reporting on Bush's service record and the Nixonian stonewalling afterward, is to perpetuate the idea that honest journalism is a myth.