That the resignation of Dan Rather from his CBS News anchor job is a humiliation for the so-called liberal media (SCLM) is taken as a given across the conservative and mainstream press. An unsigned Wall Street Journal editorial crowed of “A Media Watershed,” celebrating “the end of the liberal monopoly.” In a piece headlined “It Is Watergate,” New York Post pundit Eric Fettmann announced, “Those who have long been convinced of a liberal bias in journalism have found their smoking gun.” But it’s not merely right-wingers who’ve jumped on this bandwagon. Newsweek investigative reporter Michael Isikoff observed that “one consequence of the CBS debacle here is that it’s going to take the sting out of the liberal charge that there’s a conservative propaganda machine exemplified by Fox News.” “Oh, absolutely,” cooed an appreciative Bill O’Reilly in response.
Yet the premise that Rather is a liberal and is therefore representative of the dread disease of liberal bias rests entirely on complaints not about liberalism but about journalism. I don’t know Rather well, but in the five or six times we’ve spoken at assorted journalism-related dinners over the years I’ve never heard him say anything particularly liberal. Before the case of the botched reporting on Bush’s likely desertion of his National Guard duty–based on documents, by the way, that still have not been proved to be forgeries–the indictment against Rather rests largely on a few deliberate misreadings of historical events. Yes, Rather once spoke at a Democratic fundraiser, but he did so as a favor to his daughter, who never informed him of the partisan nature of the affair. Yes, more than thirty years ago, he found himself in a shouting match with Richard Nixon, but he was trying to get answers out of a man who was hiding a criminal conspiracy to undermine American democracy. The same is true of Rather’s questioning of Vice President George H.W. Bush in 1988, which is often trotted out as Exhibit A in the liberal media conspiracy. In a piece titled “Dan Rather: The Anchor as Madman,” Slate‘s Bryan Curtis described Rather as having “harangued the vice president about the Iran-Contra scandal,” and credited Bush’s response with quelling the “wimp factor.”
This is, to put it mildly, an odd perspective for a journalist to take. Like Nixon, Bush was seeking to gain the presidency by lying to the American people about his role in a burgeoning scandal involving criminal activity at the highest levels of government. During an interview that Bush himself insisted be carried live, Rather tried to zero in on the inconsistencies in Bush’s story, only to be met with evasions and lies: “It’s been looked at by the Tower Commission…. I find this to be a rehash…. Now this has all been looked into. It’s just a rehash…. And I’ve answered every question put before me…. a rehash…. I’ve already explained that…. there’s nothing new here…. there’s nothing new on this.”
Bush was right in his contention that his interview yielded “nothing new,” but only because he continued to stonewall to protect his presidential hopes. Bush had attended at least three meetings where the diversion was discussed in great detail. In June 1992 Iran/contra special prosecutor Lawrence Walsh made public his discovery of Caspar Weinberger’s 1,700 pages of notes, which demonstrated that Bush’s “Sergeant Shultz” defense was nonsense. Former National Security Council staff member Howard Teicher told reporters in September 1992 that together with Oliver North, he had, in fact, fully briefed the Vice President on all activities relating to the Iranian initiative, blowing a hole in Bush’s contention to the Tower investigation board that he had not learned of the events until briefed in December 1986 by Senate Intelligence Committee chair David Durenberger, a lie he repeated to Rather.
Bush partisans blamed Walsh’s release of the incriminating Weinberger notes as the primary cause of Bush’s loss of the election. New York Times reporter David Johnston noted four days after the election, “In the finger-pointing ambiance of the post-election White House, the Walsh-as-saboteur theory has already risen to the status of received wisdom…. Some Bush loyalists suggested that Mr. Walsh had finally achieved by negative publicity what he had failed to accomplish in the courts: driving a Reagan administration official from office over the affair.” (Here again, the right-wingers blame the messenger, not the truth.)
Rather’s staccato style of interviewing invites plenty of deserved derision, and he might have had a better command of the details of his story, but at least he took his charge seriously. Columbia Journalism Review‘s Gloria Cooper noted at the time, “In this frustrating age in which presidential press conferences mock their intent, in which administration officials, political candidates, company representatives, and other so-called newsmakers come expertly trained in the art of avoiding touchy topics, and in which TV journalists approach their interviewees with the deference accorded a ‘guest,’ Rather’s persistent refusal, in that now-famous interview, to let Vice President Bush direct the course of the discussion was a welcome departure from the norm.”
Unarguably, Rather screwed up on the National Guard story, but former AP president Louis Boccardi and Reagan/Bush Attorney General Dick Thornburgh concluded in their official investigation that alleged liberal bias played no role. As James Goodale pointed out in the New York Review of Books, “Lost in the commotion over the authenticity of the documents is that the underlying facts of Rather’s 60 Minutes report are substantially true. Bush did not take the physical exam required of all pilots; his superiors gave him the benefit of any doubt; he did receive special treatment.” As it turned out, thanks to a brilliant right-wing media onslaught, the net effect of the story was–as with his father–to give yet another deliberately deceptive politician named George Bush a pass, and to help lay the groundwork for his re-election.
Rather’s successes and failures were those of a dogged and decidedly overzealous journalist, not an ideologically driven liberal. The right-wing attack on him is explicitly designed to confuse those two concepts. Defenders of the profession of all political stripes must insure that they not be allowed to succeed.