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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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.