Events of this past year have shown the need for a special award in journalism for those who think that the purpose of reporting news is to cause the public to adopt the political views of those who do the reporting. Therefore this column announces the first annual Joseph Goebbels award for that journalist who best exemplifies the spirit and the practice that Dr. Goebbels pioneered.
For people too young to remember or too unschooled in history to know, Dr. Joseph Goebbels was the minister of propaganda in the Nazi regime back in the 1930s and 1940s. Facts never distracted him from his mission nor did a lack of facts inhibit his zeal.
Had there been such an award in 2003, "Baghdad Bob" would have been the clear winner for his repeated bold assurances that American troops were nowhere near Baghdad and never would be. That man could have had a great career in advertising. Holding the same official position as Dr. Goebbels, Baghdad Bob would have been the perfect first winner of this award. But such are the lost opportunities of history.
Since 2004 was an election year, there have been many highly qualified competitors for the Joseph Goebbels award in our own country. One can easily imagine them, like a man in an old New Yorker cartoon, standing before the Pearly Gates and explaining to a skeptical Saint Peter: "Those weren't lies. That was spin."
No need to prolong the suspense. This year's Joseph Goebbels award goes by a narrow but decisive margin to CBS News anchorman Dan Rather for his planned broadcast on "60 Minutes" -- just days before the election -- to discredit President Bush's National Guard service 30 years earlier. Leave aside for the moment the fact that discrepancies in the documents he relied on have convinced experts and many others that they were forgeries. Why was what George W. Bush did or didn't do 30 years earlier "news" in 2004?
It was news by Dr. Goebbels' standard -- something that could lead to desired political reactions by the audience. Waiting until it would have been virtually impossible for an effective answer to be made before election day was in the same Goebbels spirit. Had the documents been real, Dan Rather would still have been a strong contender for the award. The fact that virtually everyone, with the notable exception of Mr. Rather, now regards those documents as fake -- instead of simply "not authenticated" -- makes Dan Rather the clear winner of the Joseph Goebbels award for 2004.
It is not necessary to believe that Rather knowingly used phony documents. It seems more likely that the political opportunity was too juicy to resist just because some document experts pointed out some problems with the typing and other details. It is the purpose that is decisive, so that even honest people are eligible for this award. We have to be inclusive.
Dan Rather's closest competition for the Joseph Goebbels award was Ted Koppel, whose "Nightline" broadcast went to a Communist country to get witnesses to speak on camera -- with a Communist official present -- to discredit what the Swift Boat Veterans had said about an incident involving John Kerry during the Vietnam war.
Not one of the American eyewitnesses, who could have spoken freely in a free country, was interviewed in this "Nightline" broadcast.
That's strong competition for the Joseph Goebbels award but Rather wins narrowly on the basis of potential impact, which is after all the whole purpose of propaganda. However, with Dan Rather retiring in 2005, Ted Koppel might well qualify for next year's award.
Any number of journalists would rate an "honorable mention" in this year's contest -- or perhaps "dishonorable mention" might be more appropriate. ABC reporter Carol Simpson was one of many who have said that they went into journalism in hopes of making this a better world. That's what Joseph Goebbels thought he was doing. His idea of a better world was undoubtedly very different from Ms. Simpson's but both saw journalism as a vehicle for achieving their political goals.
Perhaps there could be a lifetime achievement Goebbels award for those who entered journalism for political reasons, rather than to convey information and let the audience decide. But there would be too many claimants and the award would therefore lose its exclusive quality.