Dan Rather's Day of Reckoning
From the October 4, 2004 issue: It didn't start with Rathergate.
Oct 4, 2004, Vol. 10, No. 04 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
What if, some day or night, a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: "This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unutterably small or great in your life will have to return to you . . ."
CBS NEWS airs a report about a Vietnam-era controversy. Almost immediately the report comes under harsh attack, its credibility and essential honesty challenged. There's a huge uproar, complete with calls for a congressional investigation. CBS is compelled to acknowledge certain errors in its handling of the story, though senior officials say pointedly that no one has challenged its basic thrust.
Does this sound familiar? It is, but this is not just a quick-and-dirty recap of the current mess at CBS. For the few CBS News staffers who have been at the network for more than 30 years, the events of the past few weeks must make them feel they're trapped inside Nietzsche's "eternal return." This is the third occasion over the past 32 years in which CBS News has been caught behaving unethically and irresponsibly in the reporting and editing of a hot-button issue involving the United States, the Vietnam war, and the behavior and conduct of senior officials in Washington.
One of those CBS employees with a long memory is Dan Rather, who has been with the network's news division for 42 years. If you want to understand why Rather is being so recalcitrant and finding it so difficult to make a full acknowledgment of his role in perpetrating a colossal journalistic and political fraud--and why he was so adamantly opposed to an internal investigation of his now-infamous story about George W. Bush's National Guard service--you need to understand that Rather saw his network weather two previous and surprisingly similar tempests.
It did so in the first case, in 1971, by refusing outright to have its programming examined by Congress and winning plaudits and awards for doing so. The offending program was a documentary entitled The Selling of the Pentagon. It stands even today as a monument in the history of American broadcasting, an award-winning subject of veneration in journalism schools--despite the fact that the producer lied to sources when he assembled the documentary and used some astoundingly dishonest editing to change the meaning of statements by two Pentagon officials caught on film by CBS (one of whom later sued the network to little effect).
For example, according to a report by Claude Witze in Air Force magazine, five sentences in an interview with Marine Col. John A. McNeil "came from four different spots on the camera record, and the sequence was rearranged." In addition, "CBS distorted the film to make its viewers think Col. McNeil said" something that was actually a paraphrase of a remark by the prime minister of Laos. The purpose, in Witze's words, was "to make McNeil's presentation sound inept, stupid, wrong, vicious."
At another point in the documentary, the program's host, Roger Mudd, was seen asking a question of Assistant Secretary of Defense Daniel Z. Henkin. The program dealt with the Pentagon's public-relations campaign in the United States and abroad. Mudd asked, "Does the sort of information about the drug problem you have and racial problem you have--is that the sort of information that gets passed out at state fairs by sergeants who are standing next to rockets?"
"No," Henkin replied, "I wouldn't limit that to sergeants standing next to any kind of exhibit."
The problem was that this exchange was concocted. Henkin's answer had been to a question about the Soviet threat. Later, producer Peter Davis shot film of Mudd asking the question quoted above and then edited it in.
The documentary concluded with Mudd's ominous words: "On this broadcast, we have seen violence made glamorous, expensive weapons advertised as if they were automobiles, biased opinions presented as straight facts. Defending the country not just with arms but also with ideology, Pentagon propaganda insists on America's role as the cop on every beat in the world." 1 According to the Museum of Broadcast Communications, "the complaints about the show began only 14 minutes after it went on the air with phone calls to the network."
The iconic status of The Selling of the Pentagon in media circles, which was instantaneous, was certainly helped along by its bald and unapologetic hostility to the display of American military power in any form, as evidenced by Mudd's concluding words. But even more so, it was due to the network's defiance of a House committee's subpoena of the documentary's outtakes and other reporting.
A Democratic congressman from Louisiana named F. Edward Hebert, then chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, supplied some footage to Davis and his team of an interview he had filmed with a former Vietnam POW. Davis told Hebert's press secretary "the videotape would be used for a POW special on CBS." Outraged to have been used by CBS to aid its case that the Pentagon was improperly marketing itself, Hebert went on the attack. CBS re-aired the show a few days later with 20 minutes of responses after the airing by Hebert and others--followed by a rebuttal by CBS News president Richard S. Salant, who said pointedly on the air that "no one has refuted the essential accuracy" of the show.
If you want to know where Rather got the idea of saying, "Those who have criticized aspects of our story have never criticized the major thrust of our report," look no further.
Salant's aggressive refusal to admit any wrongdoing inflamed congressional passions. Rep. Harley O. Staggers, chairman of the House special subcommittee on investigations (and a Democrat like Hebert) issued a subpoena because "the American public has a right to know and understand the techniques and procedures which go into the production and presentation of the television news documentaries upon which they must rely for their knowledge of the great issues and controversies of the day."
The president of CBS, Frank Stanton, declared CBS would not submit to congressional bullying. He had, he said, "a duty to uphold the freedom of the broadcast press against congressional abridgment." Staggers's subcommittee voted to hold CBS in contempt and sent the matter to the floor of the House, where CBS prevailed by 50 votes.
Stanton was celebrated and feted for his supposedly brave stand, which came at a time when CBS's evening newscast with Walter Cronkite had 40 million viewers nightly--making Stanton far more powerful and influential than any individual congressman, especially with the combined might of other broadcast networks and the elite media in lockstep behind him.
In 1982, CBS aggressively and successfully fought back against a libel suit filed by William Westmoreland, the retired general who had led U.S. forces in Vietnam. Another CBS documentary, this one entitled The Uncounted Enemy: A Vietnam Deception, had accused Westmoreland of knowingly understating the size of the Vietcong forces against which U.S. troops battled during the 1968 Tet offensive. The libel suit only went to trial because CBS News commissioned an internal investigation of its own broadcast following a damning TV Guide story that found many instances of unethical conduct comparable to those in The Selling of the Pentagon.
Had CBS refused to do that internal investigation, the lawsuit would almost certainly have been dismissed. This was the source of great bitterness at CBS, especially when the network had behaved so differently back in 1971. As Tom Shales of the Washington Post, the network's mouthpiece in the print media, put it at the time,
Another hallowed name that pops up in relation to this affair is that of Frank Stanton, the former CBS Inc. president who stood up to Congress and refused to turn over unused film from The Selling of the Pentagon in 1971. There are no Frank Stantons at CBS anymore. "Neither we nor anybody else is going to have a Frank Stanton again," one insider glumly notes.
Rather's strenuous efforts to block the launch of an internal investigation of his September 8 report on 60 Minutes must be understood in light of the consequences to his workplace 21 years ago. Those consequences were severe. For a time, CBS lost its libel insurance. And when, in 1987, CBS came under new management by the cost-cutter Larry Tisch, the network's news division was the hardest hit. The documentary unit that had produced both these shows and other fabled programs over the decades (most famously Edward R. Murrow's Harvest of Shame, the migrant-workers exposé first broadcast in 1960) faded away--something that, one could argue, would not have happened but for the CBS decision to investigate its own documentary.
In 1971, CBS News not only weathered the storm but triumphed over it. In 1982, CBS News survived the storm, wounded but still standing. In 2004, CBS has been devastated by the storm, and there's reason to believe it will never quite recover. The saga of CBS and its eternal return to Vietnam is almost over.
IT'S ALREADY BECOME a cliché to say that over the past two weeks we've been witness to a revolutionary moment in the history of media, the moment when the calcified Establishment that has dominated the dissemination of news in the United States for most of a century shattered like the fragile hip of an octogenarian.
From the bloggers who blew the whistle on the fabrications to the millions of Internet news consumers who could not get enough of every twist and turn in the unbelievable unfolding story, there was a definite sense that history was turning on a dime, that the exposure of CBS's infamy by non-journalists with a new ability to communicate through the Internet heralded the dawn of the New Information Age.
That's why, even though the precipitating event was a genuine outrage--CBS News's breathless use of forged documents accusing George W. Bush of disobeying a direct order from his National Guard superior in an all-too-obvious effort to sway the opinions of voters only 48 days before the 2004 election--the outrage has been accompanied by a spirit of giddiness and exhilaration almost from the moment the onslaught began.
This is a moment that's been a very long time coming. For four decades now, conservatives have been convinced, with supreme justification, that the institutional, ideological, and cultural biases of the mainstream media represented a danger to the causes in which they believe and the ideas they hold dear. What has happened over the past weeks isn't the beginning of a transformation. It's the culmination of a 40-year-long indictment that has, at long last, led to a slam-dunk conviction.
Some have wondered just how it is that Dan Rather could have adopted an aggrieved and persecuted tone in the days after the airing of his 60 Minutes segment--accusing those who revealed the typographical inconsistencies in the fabricated documents of being "partisan political operatives" doing a Republican administration's dirty work. The answer to this question also lies in the past--at the very beginning of the confrontation between the mainstream media and conservatives disgusted and appalled by them.
When the conservative movement emerged in the United States in the 1950s, its focus was primarily on self-consciously elite institutions--universities primarily--and their role in undermining the fundaments of Christian tradition. The media were not yet the great adversary. That notion would begin to form in 1964, with Barry Goldwater's pathbreaking march to the Republican nomination and then his disastrous failure to win the presidency away from Lyndon Johnson.
Goldwater's nomination was in part the result of brilliant "grass-roots" organizing among the party's youth wing. As GOP delegates gathered in San Francisco to choose the party's nominee in July 1964, it was clear that the party's Eastern establishment and its candidates could not withstand the energy, enthusiasm, and high spirits of the Goldwater kids and their Arizona standard-bearer.
The media didn't see enthusiasm. They saw Hitler youth. It was routine in news stories from the convention, both broadcast and in print, for the Goldwaterites to be likened to "shock troops." In his book The Making of the President 1964 (published a year later), Theodore H. White spake the conventional wisdom for the Ages: "This was a new thing in American conventions--not a meeting, not a clash, but a coup d'etat."
This sort of talk, which was not confined to opinion columns, understandably aggrieved the Goldwaterites. And at one point during the convention, a journalist ended up literally cross-wise of the Goldwater kids. NBC correspondent John Chancellor had stationed himself and his camera crew at a spot on the floor of the Cow Palace, the San Francisco venue that was home to the convention. When a pro-Goldwater demonstration broke out and began moving its way across the floor, Chancellor, asserting a heretofore unknown journalistic privilege, wouldn't move out of the way.
The Goldwater kids surrounded him, shouting. Someone went to get the security guards, who asked Chancellor to move on the grounds that he was disrupting a private gathering. He refused, and they carried him out bodily. "Here we go down the middle aisle," he breathlessly told NBC viewers. "I've been promised bail, ladies and gentlemen, by my office. This is John Chancellor, somewhere in custody."
Today, this entire incident seems like a parody out of a Christopher Guest movie--Waiting for Goldwater, perhaps, or Best in Convention. But in the world of the mainstream media, nobody was laughing. It was universally believed that Chancellor had nearly met his end at the hands of an angry mob. The Chancellor spectacle contributed to the general media portrait of Goldwater and his candidacy as a dangerous reactionary explosion that needed to be bested at all costs.
And it was universally believed by Goldwater followers at the conclusion of the 1964 election cycle that conservative ideas and conservative politicians would never receive fair treatment at the hands of the media--that, in fact, the media would do everything in their power to destroy both.
Flash forward five years, to November 3, 1969. That night, President Richard Nixon delivered his famous "silent majority" speech detailing his plan to draw down American forces in Indochina in favor of what he called Vietnamization. By any reckoning, the speech was a rhetorical and political triumph, shooting Nixon's favorable ratings into the stratosphere and generating more supportive mail, telegrams, and phone calls than any White House address ever has. But as ever with Nixon and his men, they focused not on their success but on the discussion of the speech in its aftermath by network commentators like CBS's Eric Sevareid.
Ten days later, the White House struck back in the person of Vice President Spiro T. Agnew, who went to Des Moines to complain that Nixon's "words and policies were subjected to instant analysis and querulous critics." Agnew pointed out that the "70 million Americans" who tuned in to hear the president became a captive audience for "a small band of network commentators and self-appointed analysts, the majority of whom expressed . . . their hostility to what he had to say."
The commentators who made such quick sport of the president's speech, he said, were "nattering nabobs of negativism." That phrase (coined by a White House speechwriter named William Safire) has remained in the national consciousness ever since, but the negativism of the media was not the heart of Agnew's complaint. That came when Agnew suggested the networks were guilty of liberal bias, that the bias was mutually reinforcing, and that the biased men running the networks possessed too much power over the American people.
"A small group of men, numbering perhaps no more than a dozen anchormen, commentators, and executive producers, settle upon the twenty minutes or so of film and commentary that is to reach the public," Agnew said. "This selection is made from the 90 to 180 minutes that may be available. Their powers of choice are broad. They decide what forty to fifty million Americans will learn of the day's events in the nation and in the world."
This small group of men, Agnew went on, "live and work in the geographical and intellectual confines of Washington, D.C., or New York City. . . . We can deduce that these men thus read the same newspapers and draw their political and social views from the same sources. Worse, they talk constantly to one another, thereby providing artificial reinforcement to their shared viewpoints."
Then he lowered the boom. "Is it not fair or relevant to question its concentration in the hands of a tiny and closed minority of privileged men, elected by no one and enjoying a monopoly sanctioned and licensed by government?" Agnew was referring to the fact that broadcast networks are made up of television stations that use airwaves to transmit their wares. Those airwaves were declared public property by the Federal Communications Act of 1934, and television stations are granted licenses to use them so that they can broadcast in the public interest.
"I am not asking for government censorship or any other kind of censorship," Agnew said. "I am asking whether a form of censorship already exists."
In a 1972 book on Agnew called The Impudent Snobs, the conservative journalist John R. Coyne Jr. reports that Agnew received a warning about his actions (whether before or after the speech Coyne does not say) from none other than former president Lyndon Johnson. "Young man," Johnson told Agnew, "we have in this country two big television networks, NBC and CBS. We have two news magazines, Newsweek and Time. We have two wire services, AP and UPI. We have two pollsters, Gallup and Harris. We have two big newspapers--the Washington Post and the New York Times. They're all so damned big they think they own the country. But young man, don't get any ideas about fighting."
Johnson got it right. Within days, every network nabob had fired back. CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite, then considered the most trusted man in America, described it as "an implied threat to freedom of speech in this country." His boss, the ineffably noble Frank Stanton, said the speech was "an unprecedented attempt by the vice president of the United States to intimidate a news medium which depends for its existence upon government licenses." NBC News chief Julian Goodman said Agnew "would prefer a different kind of television reporting--one that would be subservient to whatever political group was in authority at the time."
The public thought differently. U.S. News and World Report said that in the first few days after Agnew spoke, the White House "received more than 29,000 telegrams and seventeen sacks of mail. The communications were running forty to one in [Agnew's] favor."
Nixon and Agnew were, of course, sadly and tragically wrong in one respect. The American people were entirely capable of drawing their own conclusions about the nation's political direction despite media bias, as they proved by reelecting Nixon by the largest margin in American history in 1972 and eight years later sending Ronald Reagan to the White House in a landslide.
THE AGNEW SPEECH gave profound voice to the growing sense among non-liberals in the United States that their concerns, their interests, and their views were either not reflected or were under direct attack by the media. The ways in which the media misreported and misrepresented news events and political shifts became a subject of consuming interest in neoconservative and conservative intellectual and journalistic precincts, from Commentary and the pre-Clinton American Spectator to National Review and Human Events.
Academics began to examine the issue of media bias, and social scientists S. Robert Lichter and Stanley Rothman demonstrated that conservatives' feelings weren't merely an expression of paranoia with a groundbreaking 1981 study of 240 journalists. It revealed that 94 percent of them had voted for Johnson in 1964, that 81 percent had voted for McGovern in 1972, and the same 81 percent voted for Carter in 1976. "Fifty-four percent placed themselves to the left of center," Lichter and Rothman reported, "compared to only 19 percent who chose the right side of the spectrum."
Throughout the 1970s, '80s, and '90s, organizations like Accuracy in Media and the Media Research Center dedicated themselves to the laborious (pre-Internet) collection of examples of media bias in print and on television. The evidence they gathered, like the social science data that continued to show an overwhelming preference for liberal ideas and Democratic politicians in the decades after the first Lichter-Rothman study, was overwhelming and unimpeachable.
And yet it remained the stated position of most major American journalists that there was and is no bias in the media. In response to Agnew's speech, Eric Sevareid of CBS said, "I don't even know what a liberal is"--and Sevareid was CBS's on-air commentator! Nearly 30 years later, Lesley Stahl of CBS said flatly, "I had my opinions surgically removed when I became a network correspondent."
Dan Rather is still trying this trick, asserting that "anybody who knows me knows that I am not politically motivated, not politically active for Democrats or Republicans, and that I'm independent." But it no longer matters much what he may or may not say. He has destroyed himself and his news organization not because he is biased--which of course he is--but because his bias blinded him to the obvious truth that the memos he and his team believed (and/or desperately hoped) might help derail the reelection bid of George W. Bush were fabricated. They believed this because they wanted to believe it.
Dan Rather imagines that he is still battling Spiro Agnew, with the voice of the sainted Frank Stanton driving him onward. But here's the thing: When Stanton took his uncompromising stand on behalf of a scurrilous documentary that violated every journalistic standard of decency, he did something corrupt, not noble. And if there had been a blogosphere in 1971, he wouldn't have survived; The Selling of the Pentagon would today be remembered as a low point in American journalistic history rather than as a legend.
Dan Rather's eternal return ends here with the collapse of his reputation and the collapse of the 20th-century American news industry in which he was one of the last grand potentates. And it is a bleak end, unless he can console himself with the thought that he didn't fail to live up to the standards of his predecessors. He followed perfectly in their footsteps.
John Podhoretz is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard and columnist for the New York Post.
1 Lest there be any doubt about the political leanings of the show and its creator, note this: Four years after writing these words for Mudd to speak, producer-director Peter Davis collected an Oscar for a documentary called Hearts and Minds. The Oscar ceremony came just 22 days before the last American helicopter pulled away from the roof of the American embassy and Communist North Vietnam swallowed the South. Davis's producer on the film, Bert Schneider, read a telegram from Dinh Ba Thi, a Vietcong leader, offering "greetings of friendship to all American people." While the audience at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion cheered, the backstage workers who actually knew people who had been killed by the Vietcong nearly rioted, and later Frank Sinatra read a statement disavowing the politicizing of the Academy Awards.