Rather's Believe It or Not
Committed to the First Amendment
By Staff -- Broadcasting & Cable, 9/19/2004 8:00:00 PM
The tick tick of 60 Minutes was sounding more like tolling bells last week as the program and network came under increasing fire for its Bush National Guard story. Some of that criticism was political opportunism, but much of it was legitimate. Journalists live in glass houses. CBS handed its critics and the White House a rock.
The network was continuing to defend the story last week, but with decreasing emphasis on the disputed documents and more on what Dan Rather was calling the heart of the piece: allegations that strings were pulled for a young George W. Bush, a charge the White House has yet to deny and now may not have to.
Unfortunately, it will matter little how true the heart of the CBS story is if the documents were phonies, particularly if Rather and crew were warned about them beforehand. What CBS doesn't seem to grasp is that, after the memo controversy, many viewers just didn't care. Saying the story is right except that the supporting documents could be a fraud is a defense that is dead on arrival.
Our criticisms are not aimed only at 60 Minutes. The work of journalism is to be exactly right. It's not like horseshoes.
Datelinewas almost right, too, in February 1993. We remember sitting in on the videoconference with GM executives when NBC was hammered mercilessly over a story whose heart was probably as true as CBS's. It was done in by sloppiness and a failure to disclose that sparkers had been used to make a truck gas tank explode (the trucks in question were eventually recalled, but no one remembers that). In 1998, CNN sheepishly retracted its Operation Tailwind story that, during the Vietnam War, a secret military force in Laos used deadly sarin nerve gas. Serious allegations demand airtight documentation.
If anyone had questions about the Bush documents beforehand, as at least one of CBS's experts now says she did, that caveat belonged on-camera. In fact, if CBS thought it had to battle a disinformation campaign on its way to the truth, that in itself would have been a compelling part of the story.
Some newsmagazines—we won't say which, but you know who you are— slum in the netherworld of infotainment, where credibility is sacrificed for the sake of prime time ratings. Tabloid techniques may get 'em in the tent, but they give viewers a reason to doubt that all those clowns really fit in that little car.
The excitement of the "get" cannot trump the need to vet it right and get it right. When a news organization chooses to take on the President of the United States (or anyone else for that matter), it is imperative that it have its facts down cold.
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