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Just over a year ago, Walter Cronkite made a startling admission: the news media is biased, and that bias favors liberals. The media’s leftward lean isn’t exactly a breaking story; polls show that by double-digit margins, Americans recognize the liberal bias. Still, it was surprising that a news icon of the former stature of Walter Cronkite—once regarded “the most trusted man in America”—would finally own up to the media’s bias.
Dan Rather could use a bit of old Cronkite’s candor.
September hasn’t been kind to Rather, although it didn’t start out that way. Earlier this month, Rather took to the airwaves to make some news that, he thought, would change the dynamics of the presidential race. Instead, the story he aired may end his career.
On September 8th, Dan Rather claimed to have hard proof that influence was used to secure George W. Bush’s position in the National Guard during Vietnam, and that Bush later disobeyed a direct order to take a medical exam. Rather presented as evidence four documents purportedly written in the early 1970s by Bush’s commanding officer in the Texas Air National Guard.
But within hours, people started to notice that the documents—presumably written on a standard-issue IBM office typewriter—looked remarkably similar to something that Microsoft Word, circa 2004, could have generated. The similarity was so striking that when the text of the supposedly thirty-year-old documents was typed into Microsoft Word, the results overlaid perfectly with the memos that Dan Rather was claiming were written in the early seventies.
As the evidence mounted that the documents were forgeries, Dan Rather could have taken a closer look at his own story. Instead, he fired back at anyone who would dare question him, dismissing the doubters as mere “partisan political operatives.” And when his story started crumbling around him, Rather restored to the ludicrous “fake but accurate” defense: the story was true, even if the evidence to support it was forged.
Every time the name George W. Bush has been on a ballot, his opponents have questioned his service in the National Guard. And each time, the media has obligingly rehashed the same old story. Bush-bashers have always taken it as a matter of faith that “his daddy got him into the National Guard,” but they’ve never been able to back up those charges with any real evidence.
The only difference between Rather’s report and all the previous coverage of Bush’s National Guard service was the memos. If the memos were phony, then Rather was left with nothing other than the belief that the story just has to be true. Why? Because it has to be. That’s the kind of blind faith one would expect from the partisan political operatives that Dan Rather derided earlier. Pugnatious newshounds like Rather—who’s fond of saying “You trust your mother, but you cut the cards”—are supposed to require proof. That’s what I always heard.
I guess it’s not that way any more. Not at CBS News, anyway.
So, was this the result of political bias? Or was it just sloppy reporting? The answer lies in the source of the documents and what happened after they fell into the hands of CBS.
Turns out CBS got the memos from a long-time Bush critic named Bill Burkett. Earlier this year, Burkett argued in favor of using “down and dirty” campaign tactics against President Bush. And in a recent Washington Post article, Burkett certainly doesn’t come off as a disinterested truthteller:
In 1998, [Burkett] became embroiled in a bitter dispute with the Guard over medical benefits after he contracted a mysterious disease while on assignment in Panama.
In interviews, Burkett accused the Guard of failing to provide him with proper medical treatment, as a result of which he became partly paralyzed and had a nervous breakdown. He told author [James] Moore that, in desperation, he saved himself from death by taking a dose of cattle penicillin that turned out to be three times the correct dosage for his body weight.
This, according to The Washington Post, gave Burkett “a clear motive to attack his former superiors” in the National Guard. But none of this information about Burkett gave CBS News any pause, and after the memos were called into question, the network defended the source of the documents as “unimpeachable“.
CBS also said, “the documents are backed up not only by independent handwriting and forensic document experts but by sources familiar with their content.” That turned out to be wrong, too. The Washington Post reported that a number of document examiners contacted by CBS News warned the network about the memos, but CBS ignored those warnings.
So, is CBS’s reporting on all stories this shoddy, or are the low standards reserved solely for Republican targets?
Well, consider the facts. First, they get documents from a shady source with a gripe against President Bush. Then, they’re told by their own experts that the documents might be phony. But they run the story anyway, and when it starts to fall apart, instead of double-checking their evidence, they accuse their critics of being partisan hacks. And after they finally admit that the documents are frauds and the only tangible evidence to support their story is gone, they say it doesn’t matter because the story is accurate anyway, even without any evidence.
If that had been the extent of it, it would be difficult for CBS News to claim mere incompetence. But there’s plenty to suggest political motivation on the part of the people involved in putting the story together. In 2001, Dan Rather committed the journalistic sin of speaking at a political fundraiser: a $1,000-a-plate affair hosted by the Democratic Party in Travis County, Texas.
Travis County is the home of two notable Democratic Party fundraisers: Robin Rather (Dan’s daugher) and Ben Barnes. Who is Ben Barnes? In the original CBS report, Barnes was presented as the main accuser against President Bush, claiming that he used his influence to get Bush into the National Guard. But Barnes has clear political motives, too: he happens to be one of John Kerry’s largest fundraisers. And CBS News can’t claim ignorance about Barnes’s connection to the Kerry campaign: in June, CBS News reported that Barnes raised over $500,000 for John Kerry’s presidential bid.
Dan Rather isn’t the only CBS employee who’s been playing politics with the news. There’s also the case of Mary Mapes, the producer responsible for the bogus memo story. Her CBS News colleagues say she’s “made no secret of her liberal political beliefs.”
Since 1999, Mapes has been working obsessively on the Bush National Guard story, but for all that effort, no hard evidence ever panned out. Then, conveniently damning documents magically materialize just weeks before the election. And when they do, one of Mapes’s first reactions is to call the Kerry campaign to let them know. ABC News reported:
[...] Burkett said he agreed to turn documents impugning Bush’s service widely considered now to be fake over to CBS on the condition CBS would help arrange a conversation with the Kerry campaign. Burkett’s lawyer, Gabe Quintanilla, said he could not immediately confirm that Tuesday.
CBS acknowledged Mapes passed on Burkett’s number to Kerry adviser Joe Lockhart, and Lockhart called him.
Yes, that’s right. Before CBS News aired their story, Mary Mapes called Joe Lockhart at the Kerry campaign and tipped him off about the memos. A report by NBC’s Lisa Myers suggests that the Kerry campaign may have seized on the story they knew was coming:
The day before the CBS report, Democrats began a concerted attack on the President’s National Guard record. However, the Kerry Campaign insists it knew nothing about the CBS documents, claiming the timing was a coincidence.
If Mary Mapes worked for a 527, her phone call to the Kerry campaign would have been illegal. Why is it that political advertisers are held to a higher standard than our own media? After all, everybody knows when they see a political ad, they’re seeing a politically motivated presentation. But when people watch the news, they’re supposed to be getting an unbiased view of reality. At least that’s what journalists say they’re giving us.
And that’s precisely the problem. Journalists pass themselves off as objective, as if they have no opinions of their own. But they do have opinions—everybody does—and those opinions directly affect how reporters report.
Whenever we look at the world, what we see is shaped by what we believe. Well, reporters are in the business of presenting a view of the world. No matter how hard they try to be objective, no matter how hard they try to ignore what they believe, their perception of “the way it is” will influence the way they describe what they see. If we want to seek the truth by looking through the eyes of a reporter, we need to know how to compensate for any distortions in that reporter’s field of vision.
Today’s news media won’t allow us to do that. Because reporters cling to the pretense of objectivity, it is part of the journalistic code to hide one’s opinions from the public. But doing that prevents the public from fully evaluating what reporters tell us. After all, if we know that the opinions of reporters influence how they present the news, then it is practically journalistic fraud for reporters to hide their views from us. Isn’t the whole purpose of a free press to help us find the truth? How can we find the truth if information is being deliberately withheld from us?
For years, the media’s promise to news consumers has been, “trust us. What we say is true.” But after CBS News gets caught airing a fraud, it’s easy to wonder how many times we’ve been snookered before. We may never know, but one thing is clear: when reporters say their opinions don’t shape what they report, they’re deceiving you, plain and simple. If the news media wants to regain our trust, they’re going to have to level with us.
So, to all those folks who make up today’s press, I say this: if you claim you’re telling us the truth, you can start by owning up to the fact that you have opinions. We’re tired of being played for fools, which is exactly what you’re doing when you claim not to be biased. Nobody’s unbiased, and that’s not a bad thing, it’s a human thing. If you want to repair the damage done by CBS News and all the other purveyors of fraudulent reporting, you can start by being honest about who you are. If you can’t be honest about something as basic as that, how can we trust anything else you say? Walter Cronkite finally fessed up. Why can’t the rest of you?