Poor Dan Rather was ambushed by history. The man who became a star of American TV journalism by reporting on Watergate is now winding down his career under a cloud of accusations that his enemies call Rathergate. He's the political equivalent of a fashion victim, undone by changes in style. At age 73 he's been thrown on the defensive, his confidence eroded.
Still, he defends his integrity by insisting that no political bias lay behind the now infamous story on 60 Minutes Wednesday about George W. Bush's activities during the Vietnam War. The suggestion that he and other CBS journalists acted out of political motives is, he claims, "absolutely, unequivocally untrue." (Dubious claims are always expressed redundantly.)
He was not trying to defeat the President, he insists, and neither were the producers who relentlessly pursued the story about Bush receiving preferred treatment in the National Guard. They were just reporters. They were merely doing their job when they broadcast, during the election campaign, accusations based on photocopies of documents that were identified as bogus a few hours after CBS displayed them on the Web.
Rather's claim to objectivity was nonsense, of course. CBS and its reporters have always been notable for their liberalism, even within the highly liberal environment of network television. CBS journalists tend to like and admire liberals; they don't like conservatives.
Nevertheless, the panel appointed by CBS to investigate the item about Bush reported that it couldn't find political bias in those who "investigated, produced, vetted or aired the segment." The investigators acknowledged that the producers who prepared the item for Rather were myopic, overzealous and sloppy. Their performance was driven more by competitive ardour than by an interest in facts. They seem to have lied to their superiors about the authenticity of the documents they used.
But still, they weren't prejudiced against Bush, so far as the panel could see. The panel members took a literal approach; nothing short of an explicit written-on-paper plan to elect John Kerry was going to impress them.
So Dan Rather got away with it again. In a sense, however, he was probably sincere. His professional experience seems to have left him with an unassailable sense of moral worth and, at the same time, an aversion to self-examination. When he was a young man putting his political views in place while he learned the craft of journalism, American opinion was largely in the hands of what are now called liberals. In those days, the 1950s and 1960s, liberals were so smug that they didn't know they were liberals. They assumed they were simply holding the only opinions decent people could hold.
This allowed them to operate by a liberal consensus while honestly believing they were neutral -- rather like producers at the CBC today. American liberals judged all politicians by how well they adhered to liberal principles. So far as the networks and the big newspapers knew, conservatives were scattered and negligible.
In fact, the first vehement attack on American liberalism came not from the right but from the New Left, which despised liberals as servants of capitalism. It was only in the 1970s that conservative opinion became organized and articulate.
Until that happened, liberalism was the air that people like Rather breathed. Edward R. Murrow, founder of CBS News, was, of course, a liberal (what else could he be?) and so was Walter Cronkite, Rather's predecessor as anchor of the evening news. Among people Rather knew, it would have been eccentric to break with this tradition.
But eventually everything changed, for a multitude of reasons. Conservatism became a major force in U.S. politics. It acquired, like liberalism, an array of supporters at every economic and intellectual level. As this happened, Rather was too tired or too dim to notice. He spoke as if the liberal consensus was still in force and everything else was a distraction. Meanwhile, the new right-wing views entered the national bloodstream through talk radio, cable news, publications that liberals refused to read, and finally the Web. Bloggers, by unrelenting scrutiny of the evidence, destroyed the 60 Minutes Wednesday item.
But even after he was forced to apologize for the story and announce that he'll soon give up the anchor job, even after four colleagues were dismissed, Rather stuck with his own personal story, the closed narrative of innocent liberal journalism that has given his career its shape. He'll probably go to his grave insisting he's never let political opinions affect his work. Worse than that, he'll believe it.