How many people need to tell you that you've got bad breath before you take their word for it?
For years, decades even, people have pointed out to Dan Rather that he's a liberal. Or, perhaps more accurately, that he is unfair to conservatives and Republicans. There's even a Web site - www.ratherbiased.com - dedicated solely to chronicling Rather's less-than-partial comments and coverage.
But because Dan is just about the only guy out there who can't smell the stench, he refuses to admit it - even this week, after Howard Kurtz of The Washington Post broke the story that the CBS anchorman had spoken at a Democratic Party fund-raiser in Texas.
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 bunk and really just a way for conservatives to intimidate reporters, "to force you to report the news the way they want you to report it."
But Rather is too strong and principled for that. "I will wear a sandwich board. I will do whatever is necessary to say I am not going to be cowed by anybody's special political agenda, inside, outside, upside, downside."
When conservative critics like Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., criticize Rather's bias, he wears it like a badge of honor. "My job is to be accurate and fair, an honest broker of information. Period," he wrote in his 1991 book "I Remember." "It is a job that automatically puts me down in places Senator Helms dislikes."
In 1992, Rather explained to the Los Angeles Times: "I walk out every day trying to have a big 'I' for independence stamped right in the middle of my forehead. I try to play no favorites, pull no punches."
It's because of the "I" on his forehead that he takes offense at the notion his constant barbed shots at former presidents Nixon, Reagan and Bush were anything but tough journalism.
And Rather probably didn't think he was playing favorites in 1993, at a CBS affiliates meeting, when he said to Bill Clinton: "If (co-anchor Connie Chung and I) could be one-hundredth as great as you and Hillary Rodham-Clinton have been in the White House - we'd walk away winners. ... Thank you very much, and tell Mrs. Clinton we respect her, and we're pulling for her."
Rather boasted to NBC's Tim Russert in an interview: "You know my job is to be accurate, be fair and, in so far as it's humanly possible, to keep my feelings out of every story. ... 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."
It's hard to see how this meshes with his on-air tears of joy at the sight of Elian Gonzalez being snatched from Florida in a midnight raid.
Go spelunking at the Media Research Center's Web site (www.mrc.org) - or just watch him on television and see for yourself. Rather regularly introduces segments by saying, for example: "Republicans kill the bill to clean up sleazy political fund-raising. The business of dirty campaign money will stay business as usual. ..." Or: "The new Republican majority in Congress took a big step today on its legislative agenda to demolish or damage government aid programs, many of them designed to help children and the poor."
You'd think it might occur to Rather that the mere fact that he's had to defend himself on the charge of bias thousands of times over the years would be a sign that the "I" on his forehead could use some polishing. I mean, just as a matter of mathematical averages, if he were truly "playing it straight," then every now and again some liberal group somewhere would complain, too.
Survey after survey of journalists and the general public and studies of actual network coverage have shown the same thing: The network news, in general, and Rather, specifically, are either pro-liberal or anti-conservative.
A Freedom Forum survey found that 89 percent of journalists voted for Bill Clinton in 1992. A Lou Harris Poll revealed that 70 percent of self-described liberals think the media tilts to the left.
More to the point, a whole cottage industry is dedicated to exposing the "myth" Dan Rather dismisses. It is similar to the scandal machine that developed around Bill Clinton, which was sustained by the fact that the former president couldn't bring himself to admit the truth. If Rather and colleagues like Bryant Gumbel and Peter Jennings would simply admit the truth, the world wouldn't end, and the critics would lose a lot of ammo.
Rather had an opportunity to do precisely that this week when he apologized for appearing at the Democratic fund-raiser. Instead, he chose to apologize for, in effect, the false impression his visit might have made on the viewing public. He should have simply torn that fraudulent "I" from his forehead - and given the public the real story.