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Call in Congress

Why Congress should hold hearings on CBS's 60 Minutes forgery scandal.

12:00 AM, Sep 16, 2004 • By HUGH HEWITT
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INSIDE THE BUNKER AT CBS, Dan Rather must be finally feeling some sympathy for Richard Nixon. Rather is caught in a cover-up begun during a presidential campaign, the cover-up is unraveling, and a baying pack of critics greets his every utterance with disdain, as mockery begins to replace analysis. Cries of resignation are everywhere. No matter how well he closes, Rather's reputation is in tatters. When 60 Minutes went with the fraudulent docs story last week, it went over a cliff.

To complete the parallel, all we need are some timely Congressional hearings, best conducted by the Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, chaired by Michigan Rep. Fred Upton, or the Subcommittee on Communications of the Senate's Commerce Committee, chaired by Senator Conrad Burns of Montana. CBS president Les Moonves would be a wonderful witness, as would Rather, and while the subject of "sources" would be a touchy one, either subcommittee could provide some information on the workings of a major broadcast network confronted with a juicy story that has been discovered to have been cooked.

Hearings such as these would benefit the Bush campaign, just as the forgery scandal has, because it brings into sharp focus the ethics of the Bush opponents and the anti-Bush bias of the mainstream media. If a Deep Throat or two were to develop from within CBS, the revelations could be explosive, and the ratings for the cable shows wouldn't be bad either. The sacrifice of a few execs, producers, and, of course, Rather might be good for the industry all told. Certainly very, very few people have rushed to Rather's defense, and those few are just now finding convenient excuses to leave the front lines.

The hearings would serve one additional important role beyond immediate accountability, a role far more crucial than any played by the Howard Stern-Janet Jackson hearings, or even those hearings which conducted the post-mortem on the election night network fiasco of calling Florida for Gore in 2000.

Hearings now, immediately, would signal broadcasters and news executives everywhere that partisan maneuverings under the guise of news gathering--especially those that occur late in an election season--would be subject to close Congressional scrutiny. The cause of elections conducted without late hits and cheap shots such as those delivered by the Los Angeles Times against Arnold Schwarzenegger in the California recall of 2003 would be extremely well served.

Sanctions against rotten, agenda-driven journalism are out of the question--and rightly so. The First Amendment is just fine as it is, its protections best burnished by searching self-examination. But shining the light which is a byproduct of serious questioning under oath on the suits supposedly in charge of these institutional water carriers of the left would be a very healthy thing indeed.

On Tuesday night, California Rep. Christopher Cox called on the chair of his subcommittee, the above-mention Rep. Upton, to initiate an investigation. This proposal has divided the blogosphere, with critics predicting that the launch of an investigation would rally other media to CBS's defense, or cast the controversy in a partisan light.

It doesn't much matter who steps forward to defend CBS, as there is no defending its conduct, and the old media's ability to "rally" to anything or anyone is simply gone.

As for the danger that the public would perceive a partisan motivation, which is worse: an unexamined attempt to manipulate a presidential election via forgery, or the belief in the fever swamp that the GOP plays politics? What matters--far, far more than any other aspect of the affair--is that the perps and those who would follow in their footsteps get a clear message: Use fraud to manipulate a presidential election, and Congress is coming for you.

Hugh Hewitt is the host of a nationally syndicated radio show, and author most recently of If It's Not Close, They Can't Cheat: Crushing the Democrats in Every Election and Why Your Life Depends Upon It. His daily blog can be found at HughHewitt.com.