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January 12, 2005

A Short Letter to Dan Rather

"So I kind of resent your attitude toward your numerous critics who operate their own self-published sites on the Web. They were being more accurate than you were, much of the time. I don't speak for them, but I know my own archive." Plus: Lose the spokeswoman, Dan. Hire a blogger.

Dear Dan Rather: “Lest anyone have any doubt,” you said in your statement yesterday, “I have read the report, I take it seriously, and I shall keep its lessons well in mind.”

I still have my doubts. Perhaps these would be lessened if, for example, you had bothered to spell out which lessons you saw for yourself, and for CBS News in the review panel’s report.

We have had post-mortems that were published before, but not as detailed as this. What lessons are in the report for you, Dan Rather, will be established in public discussion, as the findings sink in. Today, for example, we are discussing, in rhythm with the news cycle, whether CBS News showed political bias in its mishandling of the Air National Guard story. Tomorrow it will be some further refinement.

I would not go so far as to say that you, Dan Rather, need to write a blog. You don’t. But take the money you spend on the person who is sometimes called your spokeswoman, and hire yourself a skilled blogger, to do a Dan Rather Reports blog. Here you post additional source material, put tapes of your interviews, and also explain yourself, react to crtics and follow up on stories aired by 60 Minutes.

Participating in debate around the blog and online journalism worlds could be as simple as lose the spokesperson and meet with your personal blogger for 20-30 minutes a day. He does the rest. Morning talks are turned into posts quoting you; your blogger gets the links to go with them and “runs” the blog, including comment sections. Whenever you want to write, you do.

The blogger is a feedback loop and fail safe device. Part of what she does is monitor the online world for what is being said about Dan Rather and his reporting. Such a person, well connected to the discussion, would have been extremely valuable to you during the twelve-day period, Sep. 8-20, 2004. After six months of your blog, statements like this from Linda Mason, your new vice president for standards:

“Dan does think he’s constantly attacked. If we backed off every story that was criticized, we wouldn’t be doing any stories.”

would be rendered inoperative by reason of being inane.

Noting the ups and downs in the news business, you said yesterday that you had seen CBS News “overcome adversity before.” Odd. I would think re-building a far better metaphor than overcoming at this date. Nonetheless, you said, overcoming the adversities facing CBS News “must be our focus and priority.” Now here’s the part that spoke: “And we can fulfill that objective by getting back to business and doing our jobs better than ever.”

So perhaps you can see why I still have my doubts in the deep lessons department. Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, does too. “I don’t think they’ve told what, if anything, they’ve really learned.” What are your lessons, Dan? Perfect subject for a first post at your blog.

On Sep. 11th of this year, Day Three of your story’s slow-motion collapse, I wrote: “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.” And I went on to explain that there were two crises happening at once.

One was happening to the story, which was crumbling. And the other crisis was for the CBS network and its news division because your involvement, opposite the President’s, elevated the events and raised the price of failure at the very time the first signs of systemic failure were starting to show in the documents. Nobody at your shop had figured it out and told you, but here online we had a good sense of it.

So I kind of resent your attitude toward your numerous critics who operate their own self-published sites on the Web. They were being more accurate than you were, much of the time. I don’t speak for them, but I know my own archive. Here’s what I said Friday night (the story aired on Wednesday):

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.

And it was the theatre of reputation—yours—we were in. That Friday night post was my way of alerting informed people at your network, or your friends, or someone within reach of both reason and you, to get you out of there, now. If the anchorman is on the hook, you don’t let him do the news from the hook position.

You would have been way ahead if that kind of alert had been sounded in your own network, or among your friends. It wasn’t. But it was heard among your critics online, where, in your contemptuous view of the Internet, Rather’s adversaries roam unchecked by fact or reason. The opposite is closer to the truth. The fact checking happened online, and the fact free roaming was among your squad at CBS.

Finally, Dan, everything I know about you as a journalist comes down to Dan Rather the determined, curious, tough, fair, and open-minded reporter, who still goes to foreign countries to report the big story himself because, though he anchors the evening news, he grounds his journalism, his reputation, not in news reading but in hard news, do-your-own, visit-the-scene reporting. That’s you, if I understand anything about you at all.

But have you done that with the Internet, which to you is like a foreign country thrust into the news? My alert to your friends and bosses was published at 2:30 am Friday night, so it might have been some guy in his pajamas. Still the information was good.

I respect very much this portion of your statement: “Yet good can come from this process if CBS News, and the hundreds of able professionals who labor every day to fill an essential public service in an open society, emerge with a renewed dedication to journalism of the highest quality.”

Well said. Good luck with the re-building. Good look with the renewal.

Jay Rosen

After Matter: Notes, reactions and links…

Seth Finkelstein: CBS Report file has been modifed! Cut and Paste now prohibited! “Ernest Miller noticed that he could no longer cut-and-paste from the CBS report, and asked me to investigate. He’s right. The report PDF file has been modified since its release. This can be verifed by any tool which will display the internal information of a PDF file.”

UPDATE: Sisyphus gets back a reply from CBS: “To allow copying of text to applications such as Word would allow anyone to create a modified or falsified report, which we cannot allow. The law firm hired by the Independent Panel insists that the report not be available in a format that can be altered, and we agree with that decision.”

Jan. 17: The dispute—with quotes from Finkelstein and Miller—makes the New York Times: CBS News Draws Ire of Bloggers.

Dan Gillmor: “I don’t think CBS is, today, institutionally capable of truly understanding the value of listening to its audience — of grasping how much help the audience can be in the journalistic process. The network’s offhanded dismissal of the grassroots continues even now. (I know there are individual people at CBS who do get it. But they are not running things.)”

Van Gordon Sauter was president of CBS News in the early 1980s:

At this stage, local television news, the most heavily researched news product in the nation, clings to the center, trusting that banality will trump opinion. Ultimately, if the networks can’t reform themselves, this country will end up with just that: a lot of scrupulously impartial (which is not necessarily to say good) news sources, managed by research-driven executives who find it a good marketing approach.

But my guess is that CBS Chairman Les Moonves, the most effective executive in broadcasting today, will try to use the current frailty of CBS News to reshape it. The insufferable hubris and self-righteousness of the organization have been replaced by apprehension.

Howard Fineman of Newsweek has finally written a great column. I am not a big fan of Fineman’s stuff. I think he is the embodiment of the “insider dopester” type that sociologist David Reisman wrote about. But I have to hand it to him. It was most clever to declare the American Mainstream Media a “political party” that is about to crash.

At the height of its power, the AMMP (the American Mainstream Media Party) helped validate the civil rights movement, end a war and oust a power-mad president. But all that is ancient history.

Now the AMMP is reeling, and not just from the humiliation of CBS News. We have a president who feels it’s almost a point of honor not to hold more press conferences he’s held far fewer than any modern predecessor and doesn’t seem to agree that the media has any “right” to know what’s really going in inside his administration….

The crusades of Vietnam and Watergate seemed like a good idea at the time, even a noble one, not only to the press but perhaps to a majority of Americans. The problem was that, once the AMMP declared its existence by taking sides, there was no going back. A party was born….

Some Republicans learned how to manipulate the AMMP, especially its growing obsession with personalities and its desire to be regarded as even-handed. The objective wasn’t to win the AMMP’s approval, but to isolate it by uncoupling its longterm relationship with the Democrats.

Joe Gandelman: “BOTTOM LINE: If Fineman is writing an obituary, the form of the mainstream media represented by the behavior of the CBS bigwigs — and Dan Rather — in the Memogate crisis deserves to die. It acted in a way that violated basic journalistic practices, dug in its heels and undermined its own credibility.”

Posted by Jay Rosen at January 12, 2005 2:59 PM