Ordinarily, the retirement of a TV newsman would be something to be more or less passed over in silence by friend and foe alike. But the retirement of Dan Rather as anchorman of CBS news has caused so much spin in the media that some of this spin may become “well-known facts” by sheer repetition unless challenged by real facts.
One popular spin is that it is a shame that a long and distinguished career should be judged by one unfortunate error like the forged documents that Rather relied on to question President Bush’s National Guard service.
Those who believe this might dig into the records of the CBS News broadcast of March 27, 1991, when Dan Rather said: “A startling number of American children are in danger of starving” because “one out of eight American children is going hungry tonight.”
This was a crock – but it was a fashionable crock on the left at that time and Dan Rather not only echoed but amplified a ridiculous “study” done by leftist activists. He probably didn’t set out to tell a lie then any more than he did when he relied on forged documents to try to “get” President Bush on the eve of last year’s election.
Neither were either of these or other cases simply a matter of a zealous reporter trying hard to get a story. It was bias – and bias has long been the besetting sin of the mainstream media. That is why Dan Rather’s scandal is bigger than Dan Rather and will justifiably continue to taint much of the media after his recent retirement as CBS anchorman.
If it was just a matter of Dan Rather’s zeal for a story letting him get carried away – another popular spin – then why was this zeal for digging into what George W. Bush did or didn’t do three decades earlier in the Texas National Guard not matched by an equal zeal to dig into John Kerry’s military record?
After all, Kerry himself made his military record the centerpiece of his election campaign. We weren’t supposed to question his two decades of undermining the military and intelligence services because he was a war hero.
With more than a hundred men who served with Kerry in Vietnam challenging his version of what he did there, why no zeal to dig into that story?
With the honorable discharge on Kerry’s own web site dated during the Carter administration, years after his service ended, why no zeal to find out if this was one of the less than honorable discharges retroactively raised to the status of “honorable” under Jimmy Carter’s amnesty programs? Wouldn’t that be quite a story?
Zeal is not bias and bias is not zeal, regardless of what spin is being put out in the media about Dan Rather.
At one time, when the big three broadcast networks had a virtual monopoly, their spin became “facts” for all practical purposes. The way Dan Rather and CBS News tried to stonewall and brazen out the forged document scandal suggests that they didn’t realize the extent to which their monopoly was gone.
With talk radio, Fox News, and the Internet reaching tens of millions of people, no longer could a TV anchorman say “That’s the way it is,” as Walter Cronkite used to say, and have that be taken as the last word.
What is perhaps most revealing about Dan Rather is that his defenders are mostly outside of CBS News, and such CBS News heavyweights as Mike Wallace and Walter Cronkite have recently spoken disparagingly of him in public. Mike Wallace referred to Rather’s “contrived” performances.
“Contrived” is a polite word for phony.
Although Rather is through as anchorman, what he represents is not through, and that is what makes it important to be clear about what he was and what he did, regardless of the spin of those seeking to make excuses for him. We the public need to recognize what is and is not a fact and the media need to recognize the bias and arrogance in Rather’s work – and in their own.
One hopeful sign of changes in recent times is that even liberal media outlets have begun to see a need to have a few token moderate or conservative voices. It’s not much but it’s a move in the right direction. So is the departure of Dan Rather.
*Dr. Sowell is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. *