Politics in the newsroom
September 16, 2004
Last time I looked, venerable CBS News anchor Dan Rather wasn’t standing out in the eye of Hurricane Ivan as it came ashore (which he likes to do); instead, he found himself at the center of a political/media firestorm revolving around alleged Texas National Guard documents purporting to show that President Bush failed to do his duty more than 30 years ago.
In my opinion, Rather wound up with egg on his face and the credibility of the “traditional” media was called into question.
It all started about 10 days ago when Rather presented a “60 Minutes” piece based on 32-year-old memos implying that then-Lt. Bush, who was a fighter pilot in the Guard at the time, received special treatment as the son of a prominent politician and failed to take a flight physical, as ordered. The only problem was that the secretary who would have typed the suspect documents for the squadron commander said the memos were forgeries, as did several professional document examiners. At that point, Rather mounted a curious defense by quoting the 86-year-old former National Guard secretary.
“I know that I didn’t type them (the documents),” secretary Marian Carr Knox told Rather on last Wednesday’s edition of “60 Minutes.” “However, the information in them is correct.” In other words, a political smear can be valid even if it’s based on fake documents – a novel (and very unprofessional) concept, to say the least. “If the documents are not what we were led to believe, I’d like to break that story,” Rather added, but others broke the story out from under him.
Conservative New York Times columnist William Safire averred that alert Internet “bloggers” know the difference between documents typed on old “Selectric” typewriters and those produced on computers. According to Safire and others, the documents in question were probably prepared on a Microsoft Word computer program, which wasn’t available to Lt. Bush’s Guard commander, the late Lt. Col. Jerry Killian, in 1972. But even though Killian’s widow told CBS that he could hardly type and his son warned that the documents were forgeries, Rather plunged ahead with his anti-Bush “scoop” – or smear, depending upon your point of view.
Congressional Republicans came down hard on Rather and CBS and demanded that the TV network retract the story. Forty House Republicans signed a letter asserting that the network’s response to the forgery charges was “to offer half-truths in its own defense, to refuse to disclose crucial evidence and to circle the wagons.” CBS News president Andrew Heyward responded that “we are going to redouble our efforts to answer (the) questions” that have been raised. Which begs the question. Did CBS put forged documents on the air in a thinly-disguised effort to defeat President Bush in November?
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I think they did, and it’s just the latest example of how political ideology has invaded the newsrooms of major media across the country. CBS is the same network that produced a nasty Ronald Reagan family “docu-drama” last year. It was so bad, however, that they finally decided to broadcast it on an obscure cable network. And earlier this year, “60 Minutes” devoted half a program to Dick Clarke, a former White House anti-terrorism chief who was selling a book asserting that President Bush paid scant attention to global terrorism before the deadly 9/11 attacks against New York and Washington.
A couple of weeks after “60 Minutes” correspondent Leslie Stahl conducted a friendly, 30-minute interview with Clarke, fellow correspondent Ed Bradley subjected National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice to a hostile, 15-minute grilling session. The ideological imbalance was apparent to anyone who watched both interviews. By the way, Clarke’s book was published by a subsidiary of Viacom, the giant media conglomerate that also owns CBS. Journalistic standards be damned; business is business. CBS News icon Edward R. Murrow must be rolling over in his grave.
CBS isn’t the only broadcast network that’s showing its true colors during this election season. NBC’s “Today” show has done everything but endorse Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., for president. For example, “Today” interviewed gossip-mongering author Kitty Kelley for three straight days last week to promote her new “unauthorized” biography, “The Family: The Real Story of the Bush Dynasty,” in which she asserts that Bush used cocaine at Camp David while his father was president. But Kelley’s source, Sharon Bush, former wife of the president’s brother Neil, has denied the story.
And without any effective rebuttal, “Today” granted controversial author/journalist Seymour Hersh plenty of time to hawk a new book accusing Bush of being personally responsible for the Abu Ghraib prison scandal in Iraq. But for reasons best known to NBC, “Today” can’t seem to find air time for Swift Boat Veterans for Truth members, who accuse Kerry of lying about his service in Vietnam, which is the centerpiece of his presidential campaign. So much for objectivity and political balance.
The print media isn’t any better. The New York Times front-paged the Abu Ghraib scandal for weeks on end while downplaying atrocities committed by the enemies of a free and democratic Iraq. And we all remember how the Los Angeles Times attempted to defeat California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger last year by launching flimsy sexual abuse charges against him during the hotly contested gubernatorial recall election campaign. To my knowledge, nothing ever came of those charges.
As an old journalist who learned the difference between news and opinion in journalism school more than 40 years ago, I’m sick of the way that political agendas have invaded the nation’s newsrooms. Enough already!
Guy W. Farmer, a semi-retired journalist and former U.S. diplomat, resides in Carson City.