Tarnishing the Tiffany Network
Edward R. Morrow and Walter Cronkite built the Columbia Broadcasting System into a giant among the mass media culture. Their intensity, dogged determination to ferret out the truth, and their diligent efforts to mask any inherent bias almost guaranteed CBS' reputation of integrity.
That unparalleled reputation makes the fall from grace even more spectacular. The fact that CBS had been steadily losing rating share hardly minimizes the collapse of credibility.
The big three networks had found a way to pay their news anchor's superstar money. They each serve as the managing editor of the national news effort in addition to the talking-head duty.
This merging of a reporter's skills with the savvy and vision of a manager creates the opportunity for catastrophic failures in judgment.
Let me confess a personal bias. I've never liked Dan Rather, and I never watch CBS News. My personal preference has always been Tom Brokaw at NBC, although I watch MSNBC and Fox News regularly now.
I find the whole "memogate" controversy a sad indictment of a dying business. Like a punch-drunk heavyweight, network news is lurching and stumbling towards an inevitable count-out!
Twenty-four hour news analysis and an appetite for instant updates, snazzy graphics, and constant "ticker" style news streaming has forced the networks to work harder to retain an audience.
Maybe that's why Mr. Rather and CBS let down their guard and, by extension, let down their viewers. I suppose I'd rather believe that CBS was motivated more by desire to break a hot story than by Dan Rather's well-established dislike for the Bush family, dating back to when President George H. W. Bush took him to task for walking off the CBS News set during U.S. Open coverage in the 1980's.
My first reaction to the 60 Minutes II story about President Bush ignoring his National Guard responsibilities and the production of a memo signed by his commander was that it might hurt his reelection campaign.
With Senator Kerry "reporting for duty," my overly political mind played a commercial about the President failing to "report for duty." I pictured his old guard commander waving an evaluation form on camera.
Within hours of the airing of the 60 Minutes II episode, holes the size of a 10-gallon hat were being shot in Rather's story. We were inundated with font styles, typewriter mechanics, and military writing techniques.
One might wonder why CBS ignored the advice of their own document experts when deciding to run the story. One expert, acknowledged for her experience in analyzing military records, told a CBS producer that she could not verify the document's accuracy BEFORE they ran the story.
So now, instead of blighting the Air National Guard service of President Bush, all CBS has done is to destroy the reputation of their own news division. My beloved hometown's weekly newspaper, the Brunswick Citizen, would have done much more fact finding before running a story like this.
To add injury to insult, CBS has steadfastly refused to fess up to the fact that they either ran with a bogus story without verifying it, or that they knowingly participated in a fraud.
One of Mr. Rather's ploys took the cake. CBS found the 86-year-old former secretary that worked with the late Lt. Col. Jerry Killian. She told Mr. Rather that she didn't type the memo, and further stated that the document appeared to be a forgery.
Even faced with the lack of a factual foundation for his claim, Mr. Rather pressed on with his accusation. In a lame attempt to cover his unprofessional work, he encouraged the elderly woman to state that even though the document was a fake, it represented what she remembered to be Lt. Col. Killian's thinking.
Dan Rather's theory produces an interesting proposition. Suppose we suspend the rules of evidence and right to face your accuser in a similar manner for other cases.
How about a confession from Scott Peterson that he murdered his wife? No problem if his signature is forged, we feel very strongly that he did it anyway!
Using CBS' twisted logic, it's too bad we didn't have a forged note from O.J. during his trial. He might now be where he belongs, not on some Florida golf course.
All of us have screwed up big at least once, many of us several times. In all the times I've blown it, I've found a way to make things right. Usually painful, always uncomfortable, these chances to fix things are essential in maintaining our credibility and integrity.
CBS and Dan Rather had their chance, too. All it would have taken was for Mr. Rather and CBS President Andrew Heyward to fess up, disclose the source of their fraudulent letters, and describe how CBS would avoid further acts of unprofessional journalism.
I'm saddened to state that this chance was missed. Instead of full disclosure and repentance, CBS and Mr. Rather opted to admit the use of the fake documents while expressing the sentiment that CBS believed that the sentiment expressed thereon were valid.
According to Mr. Rather's on-air admission, he expressed the opinion that he hoped the original documents on which these forgeries were based might still exist.
Not only embarrassing, this statement is ludicrous in its basic form. There is no way that any legitimate, serious journalist would carry a charge forward based on a forged document. No media entity (except CBS) interviewed felt it appropriate to pursue any form of a story whose basis was contained in a fake document.
Any hesitance to do the right thing will surely add further tarnish to the Tiffany Network. Of course, it won't matter to me. I'm not going to be watching anyway!