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September 18, 2004

Rather's Satisfaction: Mystifying Troubles at CBS

Dan Rather and CBS took the risky course, impunging the motives of critics, rather than a more confident and honorable one: Let's look at our sources and methods. What can explain such a blind reaction? Here is my attempt.

After Mr. Rather posed a question to Nixon at a National Association of Broadcasters convention in 1974, Nixon asked pointedly, “Are you running for something?” Mr. Rather shot back, “No, Mr. President, are you?” Link.

Here I take a crack at explaining why Dan Rather and CBS News have disappointed their colleagues, enraged their critics, compounded their losses, endangered the CBS brand and mystified so many observers in the days since their troubles began, which was really only hours after 60 Minutes carried a report on President Bush’s record with the Texas Air National Guard.

That report, which Rather hosted, announced to the nation the sensational existence of documents CBS had failed to authenticate.

This is the crime of which the network stands accused in the theater of election year politics, and in a longer history of resentment that some see as coming to a fiery end in Rather’s acts of self-destruction. Whether that’s true or not, CBS has to understand that its news division has become protagonist (or villain) in a 60 Minutes-style scandal story, an investigative drama, not just an investigation.

The documents were “sensational” because of the revelations in them about the character and conduct of the President in a bitter election-year struggle. If they had forgeries inside them, then the charges CBS aired were very likely attempts at political sabotage. For the network to be involved in something like that goes beyond bounds of forgivable error.

Here’s author and journalist Susan Tifft, on the Newhour with Jim Lehrer, talking about it:

CBS and Dan Rather in particular are really sort of the poster children for all the charges of bias, left-wing bias in the media, so I think CBS in particular is very much, you know, not on the ropes exactly, but certainly the focus of a great deal of attention. And people inside CBS are very concerned about this.

So I think what their legacy is going to be from this and how we’re going to remember this incident in journalism I think is going to depend a great deal on how they handle it.

Legacy hour. That means we’re in the theatre of reputation, and Rather is himself the major character, although it was supposed to be not Dan Rather under trial but fellow Texan George W. Bush. Big Journalism is involved. Kid Internet. Military Service. Democratic Activists. The Liberal Media. The Bush Clan. Texas Power Circles. The DNC? To say “this is theatre” is not to diminish the story, but to suggest why it’s grown so big.

Bringing devastating memos into a campaign’s final sprint is like bringing pistols on stage. You better know what you are doing at that point in the script. It’s theatre when tensions in the “little” story match up with larger tensions in the political atmosphere, which the news audience can sense. The resolution of the mess at CBS could thus figure in the psychology of the election, or if not that then the fate of network news and Big Media from here on. We’ll have further investigation. We will also have further theatre:

And when he was caught out, mostly by a legion of bloggers who seemed to know more about the subject than he did, Mr. Rather responded like a politician caught in a scandal, attributing partisan motives to his critics while ignoring most of the charges against him.

That’s from Byron York’s effective overview in Opinion Journal. Ernest Miller’s annotated timeline is also a most valuable document. The authenticity of the memos came under doubt almost right away. And as Miller shows, almost right away Rather began behaving under a weirdly opposite premise: That there was no doubt the memos were authentic. And where the cry rang out… then prove it! he shouted back something else that was weird: I already proved it.

To which many people said: huh? This, then, is a moment to bear in on.

A clear sign that the weight of collegial opinion in the press establishment is now against Rather and in favor of “huh?” is this paragraph in Friday’s New York Times account:

“They have not convinced me they properly nailed it,” Bill Kovach, chairman of the Committee of Concerned Journalists, said of CBS. “If they are going to make an assertion or allegation or use documents, they certainly better be sure of them, because the validity of the assertion is going to be questioned, the process by which you make your assertion or present your information has to be transparent and CBS hasn’t hit that target yet.”

The newsroom mind has a simple switch for judging stories like this. You nailed it. You didn’t. Nailing refers to the kind of sourcing and documentation required to authenticate what the story claims is true. If you publish a work of investigation, and it raises serious charges against important people, but you haven’t nailed it, then you are guilty of malpractice. You should pay a heavy price for that.

When Bill Kovach—former Washington bureau chief for the New York times, former editor of the Altanta Constitution, former head of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard University, former ombudman for Brill’s Content—says “they didn’t nail it,” that means 60 Minutes failed peer review.

In Rather’s mind—and it came through in his statements—60 Minutes had already passed peer review in its reporting on the Guard records. They had already been declared authentic by the toughest judges there are: himself, his producers and other CBS News people. This is from Saturday, September 11, three days after the original report aired. Rather to Howard Kurtz:

“Until someone shows me definitive proof that they are not, I don’t see any reason to carry on a conversation with the professional rumor mill,” the CBS anchor said. “My colleagues and I at ‘60 Minutes’ made great efforts to authenticate these documents and to corroborate the story as best we could… . I think the public is smart enough to see from whom some of this criticism is coming and draw judgments about what the motivations are.”

Document authentication couldn’t be taking place on the Internet. It had already taken place. It had happened behind the scenes when the story and the memos supporting it checked out to Dan Rather’s satisfaction. Which became a factor in events: Ladies and Gentlemen, Dan Rather’s satisfaction has been met. You can return to places now. It amazes him that anyone else’s system of doubt could establish the public standard for a checked out story.

For who has higher standards than Dan Rather, the people of 60 Minutes, the News Division of CBS? Who knows more about the art of corroboration? Mary Mapes, the CBS producer whose name is also on the Texas Guard story, had been working on it for some five years. (And bloggers render their verdicts over night!)

60 Minutes, the editorial franchise, had long ago established itself as the most successul news and investigation program ever, just as CBS had long ago established itself as the gold standard in broadcast news. And on all kinds of stories, all over the world, Dan Rather had long ago established his own reputation as fearless, hard working, incorruptible, tough on everyone, in the pocket of no one, a classic big story reporter.

That’s a key thing to know about Rather: yes, he’s anchored the news on CBS longer than anyone, even the great Cronkite. But self-definitionally, he’s still a reporter, the hustling correspondent who outworks everyone else. (This tells you he’s a romantic, as well.) The reporter in him authenticates the anchorman. “Rather has always taken pride in unchaining himself from the anchor desk to cover wars, political campaigns and various other crises,” wrote Howard Kurtz this week.

There was a political legacy connected to reporter Dan Rather. It included, in his mind, being hated for his toughness. He was conscious of it. And like anyone who is hated for public reasons he had to explain this reaction in a way that was not hateful or harmful to himself.

“I try to look people in the eye and tell them the truth,” Rather said. “I don’t back up. I don’t back down. I don’t cave when the pressure gets too great from these partisan political ideological forces,” he said to Howard Kurtz. (Note the triple adjective: partisan, political, ideological.)

“Anybody who knows me knows I’m an independent, I’m not politically inclined, except I love to report on politics,” he told Jim Rutenberg. “My job is to follow important stories wherever they may lead me.” This is his statement about professional character. It explains to Rather why he’s been hated. It’s also his way of tuning us out.

We’re politically inclined. He’s not.

He’s professionally independent. We’re not.

He has to go wherever the truth leads a man. We don’t have that burden.

We’re free to take sides, and we do. He’s not free, and he doesn’t.

Call it the self-image of the politically lonely truthteller, the maintenance of which became a big factor in what Rather said when he began to speak into the national microphone last week. It wasn’t the standard: we stand by our story. It was… We stand by our story, and look who we are. To those with questions about the documents (“are they authentic, journalists?”), Rather and company gave the argument of credentials (“we are authentic journalists.”) Now, if the Guard story crashes so do those credentials. But this is Rather’s instinct, bound up in his sense of personal honor. As the Los Angeles Times reported:

Although many others helped report and corroborate the story, Rather said, “I’m of the school, my name is on it, I’m responsible.”

I’m of the school. You have to tune into his sense of theatre. Rather is a secret incendiary. His pattern—escalate the drama—can be seen on the CBS Evening News when a natural disaster strikes; he’s always the most emotional, the closest to apocalypse. Rather is the only network anchorman to employ a “hot” style; all the others are emotionally cool, which is thought to be a requirement for longevity in television.

Escalation shows in his answer to one of the first questions thrown at him last week. Will you investigate the memos given the rising doubts? Instead of saying: we stand by our story, and, yes, we will continue to investigate all sides of it, Rather chose the “steadfast plus” option. We stand by our story and there is no need to investigate.

Again, this creates more theatre. If the memos are fake, then his confidence seems faked, and he becomes a more comic figure on stage, taking a big public fall. “Your pride gets in the way,” said Ken Aueletta on the Newshour Thursday night, trying to explain how it happened. “And your chest puffs up and you say, full speed ahead. And maybe you shouldn’t.”

But an excess of pride only goes so far in explanation. William Safire thought insufficient pride was shown:

To shut up sources and impugn the motives of serious critics - from opinionated bloggers to straight journalists - demeans the Murrow tradition. Nor is any angry demand that others prove them wrong acceptable, especially when no original documents are available to prove anything.

Safire’s right about that. And I still want to take my shot at explaining how it happened that Rather took this risky course, impunging the motives of serious critics (“from opinionated bloggers to straight journalists”) rather than the more confident and honorable one: let’s look again at our sources and methods, and investigate what happened to make us think we nailed it. Even better: an outside team gets to the bottom of it, and in a few days publishes a report. That’s what CBS should have done. It’s outrageous that sane options like these weren’t even considered.

Rather pre-empted all the cautious moves because his instinct was to escalate. His instinct was to escalate because he saw in critics only their motives: to discredit the reporter who raises tough questions about candidate Bush. Rather had anticipated this— but by way too much. “They will attack the messenger because they don’t like the message” fit too well the theatrical terms in which he saw himself. This is from the New York Observer’s Joe Hagan:

Mr. Rather said that the focus on questions over the veracity of the memos was a smoke screen perpetrated by right-wing allies of the Bush administration.

“I think the public, even decent people who may be well-disposed toward President Bush, understand that powerful and extremely well-financed forces are concentrating on questions about the documents because they canít deny the fundamental truth of the story,” he said. “If you canít deny the information, then attack and seek to destroy the credibility of the messenger, the bearer of the information. And in this case, itís change the subject from the truth of the information to the truth of the documents.

“This is your basic fogging machine, which is set up to cloud the issue, to obscure the truth,” he said.

I think he fell into a crazy kind of professional love with the Mr. Smith-ness of it. A powerful and extremely well-financed fogging machine against the lone reporter and his team of light-shiners. He wanted that confrontation to come. It fit his sense of theatre. It authenticated everything about him.

The verification stage was over, he thought. It has been settled by CBS authority, inside CBS offices, in the counsel CBS kept with itself. Those who wanted to question it could consult the CBS legacy, or Rather’s accumulated rep. This was not about verification, he thought, it was a confrontation with the rich and powerful, with the Republicans and their fogging machine. He had planned for an investigative drama. He thought it was legacy time in the truthtelling biz.

After Matter: Notes, reactions & links…

Howard Kurtz, Michael Dobbs and James V. Grimaldi investigate in the Washington Post (Sun. Sep. 19):

An examination of the process that led to the broadcast, based on interviews with the participants and more than 20 independent analysts, shows that CBS rushed the story onto the air while ignoring the advice of its own outside experts, and used as corroborating witnesses people who had no firsthand knowledge of the documents…

As the days begin to blur for [executive producer] Josh Howard, he embraces the same logic: “So much of this debate has focused on the documents, and no one has really challenged the story. It’s been frustrating to us to see all this reduced to a debate over little ‘th’s.”

Indeed, that is the big mystery. Jim Rutenberg in the New York Times (Sep. 19): “One mystery among CBS staff members is why network officials remained so confident for so long about the documents as so many questions arose.”

See also In the Rush for a Scoop, CBS Found Trouble Fast by Josh Getlin, Elizabeth Jensen and Scott Collins, Los Angeles Times (Sep. 18).

Read Jeff Jarvis, blogger and “Big Media Guy” (as he sometimes calls himself), in the New York Post on what CBS should have done (Sep. 19): Dan’s Mistake: “They should have said to the bloggers, ‘Thank you ó and welcome to journalism; we can use your help.’”

Dawning of The Pajama Press. Michael S. Malone, writing in his Silicon Insider column at ABC News (Sep.16).

The heroes of this story are, of course, the denizens of the blogosphere. The Pajama Press has won. They have been the welcome counterweight to the increasingly unbalanced message being purveyed by the MSM this political season. I’ve written a lot about these folks in the last few months, mostly with admiration, but mixed with a little fear. Their power and influence has been building now for several years.

Few people noticed that the Web readers of many major publications, like The New York Times, were now greater than the print readers; or that Web-based movements were creating swings in everything from the stock market to Nielsen ratings. All the pieces were in place for a radical discontinuity ó and now it has come.

And take note of this disclaimer ABC News runs: “This work is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.” But also see Tom Watson, Don’t Praise the Bloggers, which argues a different case.

The Chicago Tribune’s Howard Witt (Sep. 18): “…Welcome to the “blogosphere,” the chaotic new media world where questionable truths joust with plausible fictions, agendas are often hidden, and motives are frequently mixed, and millions of ordinary citizens clamber to offer their own rumors, opinions and jeremiads. All of which is either very bad or very good for the republic and the future of the American free press, depending on your point of view.”

Jay Currie’s useful round-up has links from when the story was first emerging: Blogs vs. 60 minutes.

Ben Wasserstein, op-ed in the Los Angeles Times (Sep. 19): “The blogs picked up the story, but they couldn’t carry it to the finish line alone. They were complemented by traditional media but never came close to supplanting it. The bloggers who first cast doubt on the CBS memos deserve congratulations, gratitude and, of course, their time in the sun. This has been another moment of triumph for this dynamic and emerging field, and it will surely not be the last. But it has been a moment, not a revolution.”

Howard Kurtz: After Blogs Got Hits, CBS Got a Black Eye (Sep. 20)

Cathey Young, column in the Boston Globe (Sep. 20): Memo stirs old vs. new media war.

Edward Wasserman in the Miami Herald (Sep. 20): The transparency trap. “To me, the cry for transparency isn’t about holding media accountable; it’s a way to make certain media discountable. It creates a rationale for ignoring content you dislike by dismissing it as the deliberate product of unshakable prejudice.”

Flunking peer review: “The fact is CBS used those documents as the smoking gun,” said Alex Jones, head of the Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University. “I don’t believe Dan set out to mislead anybody, but he’s got to stand up and take a bullet. His credibility and that of CBS are very much on the line.”

Roger Simon on the Rather reporting by Michael Dobbs of the Washington Post: “The blogs may have broken the story open, but Dobbs is now doing the heavy lifting.”

Jonathan V. Last, What Blogs Have Wrought, in the Weekly Standard: “Bloggers are fantastically more transparent than major news organizations, which in their inner workings are among the most inscrutable institutions in America. Most blogs have an ‘About Us’ link near the top of their page. Had Seglin clicked this link on Power Line, for instance, he would have found that bloggers John Hinderaker, Scott Johnson, and Paul Mirengoff were lawyers with prestigious firms such as Minneapolis’s Faegre & Benson and Washington’s Akin, Gump. On, Newcomer had posted his entire rťsumť, his home address, his email, and his telephone number. Besides Dan Rather and his lead producer Mary Mapes, Seglin would have been hard pressed to get even the name of a CBS employee who worked on the memo story.”

Dan Rather interviewed by Howard Kurtz Sep. 16:

“If the documents are not what we were led to believe, I’d like to break that story,” Rather said in an interview last night. “Any time I’m wrong, I want to be right out front and say, ‘Folks, this is what went wrong and how it went wrong.’ “…

“This is not about me,” Rather said before anchoring last night’s newscast. “I recognize that those who didn’t want the information out and tried to discredit the story are trying to make it about me, and I accept that.”

CBS News: official statement on the matter from Sep. 15 (pdf form)

“Journalism in the Age of Blogs.” Kelly McBride at Poynter Ethics Journal (Sep. 16):

Itís a sure bet that bloggers will continue to challenge and undermine the work of journalists. In response, journalists will get better and tougher. Anticipating the constant scrutiny, reporters will tell readers and editors where they got their information, why they think itís sound, what they did to check out their sources.

Journalists can no longer assume the audience will trust the story. Instead, newsrooms will take extra steps to articulate their mission and educate their audience with every story, every day. This is what we did. This is how we did it. This is why you should trust us. We used to hide all this. We didnít want the competition retracing our steps, tracking down our sources, doing a better story. The mystery of making the news is no longer worth preserving.

Posted by Jay Rosen at September 18, 2004 2:42 AM