The decision of CBS News to delay the broadcast of an investigation into how the Bush administration manipulated intelligence and played upon fears in order to make the case for war with Iraq is the most unsettling development yet in a political year that has beem defined by unsettling moments.
CBS News officials, rocked by the controversy surrounding the journalistic missteps of veteran anchor Dan Rather and "60 Minutes" staffers in putting together what should have been an easy report on President Bush's troubled tenure in the Texas National Guard, have announced that they will wait until after the November 2 election to broadcast a much-anticipated investigation of the steps the administration took to warp the debate about whether to go to war.
The fear, at least as it is officially expressed by CBS, is that revealing the extent of the administration's misdeeds might influence the outcome of the election by letting the American people in on what has really been going on in Washington. Thus, a CBS statement announced, "We now believe it would be inappropriate to air the report so close to the presidential election."
Critics of CBS will, of course, speculate that the decision had less to do with a desire to be fair and balanced than with a fear on the part of corporate honchos that the airing of the expose would lead to new charges that the network is displaying an anti-Bush bias. After the fiasco involving doctored documents regarding Bush's time in the Guard, CBS insiders admit that they are afraid to broadcast reports about the doctored documents the Bush administration used to make its "case" for war.
Critics also note that Sumner Redstone, CEO of CBS's parent company Viacom, has now repeatedly suggested in public statements and interviews that "from a Viacom standpoint, we believe the election of a Republican administration is better for our company."
But let's put these legitimate concerns aside and accept CBS at its word.
Let's accept that the network does not want to air the report before the election because of genuine concerns on the part of CBS News professionals and CBS corporate officials about the impact of sharing the truth with the American people might have on voting patterns.
But let's also be clear about what has happened here: CBS News has ceased to be a news organization.
A network that worries about whether its reports will offend the people who are in power is no longer practicing journalism. And a network that is so worried about being accused of bias that it will not reveal the truth to its viewers is no longer in the business of distributing news.
Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and the other founders of this country created the framework for a free press, and fought mightily to defend the rights of dissident editors in the first years of the republic, because they feared the abuses of power that would result if presidents went unchallenged. They knew that democracy would only function if independent watchdogs were forever barking at the powerful from the columns of the partisan newspapers of their day. Jefferson may have put it best when he wrote in 1816 that, "The functionaries of every government have propensities to command at will the liberty and property of their constituents. There is no safe deposit for these but with the people themselves, nor can they be safe with them without information. Where the press is free, and every man able to read, all is safe."
By extension, when powerful media outlets censor themselves, the safety to which Jefferson referred is threatened.
The notion that a journalist would sit on a story because he or she fears being accused of bias, or because an expose might have an impact on a presidential election, would have shocked and offended Jefferson, Madison, Tom Paine and the others who fought at the start of this American experiment to forge the way for a free press.
If ever there was a time when a bold and unyielding free press was needed, Jefferson argued, it was in the weeks before a national election. At the point when the American people are preparing to determine who will lead their country, they need more than just stenography. They need news outlets that seek, without fear or favor, to speak truth to power.
Without a free flow of information, especially controversial and shocking information about the most pressing issues of the day, citizens cannot make informed choices. And when citizens cannot make informed choices, democracy ceases to function.
With their decision to sit on a story of how the Bush administration manipulated this country into war, CBS News officials have chosen to block the free flow of information. As such, they have broken faith with the promise of a free press. They are now merely stenographers to power, and impediments to democracy.
John Nichols' book on Cheney, Dick: The Man Who Is President, has just been released by The New Press. Former White House counsel John Dean, the author of Worse Than Watergate, says, "This page-turner closes the case: Cheney is our de facto president." Arianna Huffington, the author of Fanatics and Fools, calls Dick, "The first full portrait of The Most Powerful Number Two in History, a scary and appalling picture. Cheney is revealed as the poster child for crony capitalism (think Halliburton's no bid, cost-plus Iraq contracts) and crony democracy (think Scalia and duck-hunting)."
Dick: The Man Who Is President is available from independent bookstores nationwide and at www.amazon.com