Story location: http://archive.pressthink.org/2004/09/11/cbs_docs.html
September 11, 2004
Weekend Notes With "Forgery" Swirling in the Air
By Monday morning, we should know a great deal more about whether CBS News peddled forged documents as the real thing in its recent investigation of President Bush's National Guard Service. Here are some quick thoughts-- not about the charges, which seem serious to me, but about the general atmosphere and what's at stake if this turns into a political scandal.
Four things to stick in the front of your mind:
- It completely elevates the episode and charges it with political and cultural tension that the anchorman, Dan Rather, presented the CBS report Wednesday Night accusing Bush of disappearing from Guard duty. If Sixty Minutes had presented a damaging story of that kind at the height of an election campaign and it turned out to be based on forged documents, that would itself be a crisis. But it was Dan Rather on Sixty Minutes, and it is now Rather on the hook if the documents are fake. (Indeed, Rather told the Los Angeles Times, “I’m of the school, my name is on it, I’m responsible.”) That brings in Rather’s celebrity, the corporate iconography in which an anchorman is always involved, the succession drama at CBS News now that Rather is 72 years old, and the enormous venom out there for Rather, who is seen on the Right as a man of many political sins. Thus, PowerLine wrote: “This would appear to signal the end of Rather’s career. If the documents are ultimately accepted as forgeries, which seems inevitable to us, he can’t survive.” All of which means this is not just a scandal, but a cultural theatre for it, and that’s different.
- At some point attention will shift to the confluence of events in the news media, in publishing, and in politics that made for “Guard week” this week— to all the things that appeared within days of each other. Forces behind that confluence will be brought to light. As ABC’s The Note said Friday, “Republicans can rightly ask about the confluence of all the DNC, outside group, and media focus on revisiting the Guard story.”
- Right inside the door of the CBS scandal there is a Dirty Tricks scandal waiting to come to light. If the documents turn out to be fakes, the question will immediately become: who dealt them to CBS? Perhaps that explains this: “Longtime Democratic strategist Pat Caddell said Friday that if documents aired by CBS newsman Dan Rather Wednesday night turn out to be forged, as alleged by experts, the presidential race ‘is over. It would be the end of the race,’ Caddell told Fox News Live. ‘It would be the end of the race,’ he repeated.”
- This story is bursting open what was called the “undercard” in the earlier scandal story to which “Guard week” is a reply of sorts— the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth and their charges about John Kerry’s military service. There, according to blogger Belmont Club, the big beef was between Kerry and the Swift Vets. But an undercard, fascinating in its own right, featured Mainstream Media vs Kid Internet. “The reigning champion, the Mainstream Media, has been forced against all odds to accept the challenge of an upstart over the coverage of the Swiftvets controversy.” (See the original post by Wretchard at Belmont Club, and my take here.) Now that undercard has become the main event. The Note put it this way: “It is interesting to Note that the right (Drudge, Fox, right-leaning blogs, others) led the way in pointing out the questions we have all been asking — and they were onto the questions, with remarkable detail, relatively soon after the documents were made public.” Pay attention to The Note’s chronology (Sep. 10th edition), showing how the blogs argued into plausibility the “forgery” thesis. Contrast that with the Boston Globe’s account, which barely mentions those who “led the way,” according to ABC News. More conflicts—Globe’s reporting vs. ABC’s— are here.
John Podhoretz of the New York Post sees a “populist revolution against the so- called mainstream media” in the events of the last few days. “Yesterday, the citizen journalists who produce blogs on the Internet — and their engaged readers — engaged in the wholesale exposure of what appears to be a presidential-year dirty trick against George W. Bush.” Or against CBS.
Roger L. Simon apparently feels that Rather (or someone working for him) almost got away with the equivalent of electoral fraud. But the bloggers stopped it. Thus: “when you think of what Rather could have done, uncriticized by bloggers (working, unlike him, virtually for nothing), it’s blood curdling.” His view includes this prediction: “…if Rather and his colleagues don’t apologize fully and soon, I imagine a mass movement to boycott CBS News (not their sponsors - it’s not their fault) for promulgating forgeries during a presidential campaign would be forthcoming.”
I found it interesting that Stirling Newberry of BOP News, who identifies Left, is not only convinced there’s a credibility crisis for CBS (“the simple truth is that the equipment that existed in 1972 would not have produced this output…”) but also for the “left blogsphere,” which “should be ashamed of itself for backing off of demanding what we will need to demand the next time Bush pulls a secret plan to save social security out of his nether regions.”
Newberry’s point is: a principled Left would not leap to defend Dan Rather and CBS because it likes the consequences of their reporting on Bush’s National Guard years. Instead, demand what we need to see before the public can again have confidence in the report Rather aired Wednesday night.
For those in the Big Picture market, the smartest thing I have seen written so far on the events in question is again by Belmont Club:
The traditional news model is collapsing. It suffers from two defects. The “news object” can no longer be given sealed attributes in newspaper backrooms. The days when the press was the news object foundry are dying. Second, the news industry is suffering from its lack of analytic cells, which are standard equipment in intellgence shops. Editors do some analysis but their focus is diluted by their attention to style and the craft of writing. The blogosphere and other actors, now connected over the Internet, are filling in for the missing analytic function. And although the news networks still generate, via their reporters, the bulk of primary news, they generate a pitiful amount of competent analysis.
Overheard in the comments here (Lee Kane): “Trouble is Bouffard is now on the blogs saying that the Globe mischaracterized his comments and that he is more suspicious of the documents than ever: but no mass media outlet is of course picking that up.”
In other words, in mass media land, the scandal is over and the forgery suspicions put to rest. I don’t think bloggers alone can put enough pressure on CBS to release their originals or reveal their provenance. The scandal may well remain in blog land and, in the mists of time and fog of war, ultimately end up as an “urban legend” and anyone who believes it will be thought a right-wing crackpot.
I don’t buy that, myself.
Posted by Jay Rosen at September 11, 2004 2:17 AM