The Magazine

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
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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 . . ."

--Nietzsche on the "eternal return" in The Gay Science

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."

Sound familiar?

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.