Soundings

Stefan Kanfer
Rather Not
The end of an era
Autumn 2004

The criticism,” growled NBC's Tom Brokaw, went “beyond any factual information.” Indeed, it was nothing less than “a political jihad.” ABC's Peter Jennings, equally outraged, chimed in: “I don't think you ever judge a man by only one event in his career.”

They were speaking, of course, about l'Affaire Dan Rather, rising in defense of their fellow elite anchor. Trouble is, Jennings was right. We shouldn't judge a man by a single event; we should judge him by all his biases and errata. These, Rather has in overplus. (Researchers may visit Ratherbiased.com, where they'll find them carefully compiled and analyzed.)

Brokaw, by contrast, was absolutely wrong. The criticism—that Rather had used forgeries to claim that George W. Bush had received special indulgences while serving in the National Guard during the Vietnam War—turned out, as everyone now knows, to be factual. The CBS man had dealt his viewers a pack of lies. You didn't have to be Sherlock Holmes to see that a 1970s-era typewriter could not have produced the CBS document. Bloggers almost immediately recognized the phoniness—in contrast to the CBS News division. Shortly afterward, the sky fell in at Black Rock, and an investigatory panel went to work.

CBS isn't the only one of the Big Three to have its bias exposed this election season. In early October, ABC's respected political news director Mark Halperin wrote a confidential memo, immediately leaked to the blogosphere, that instructed his staffers to go harder on Bush than Kerry. “Kerry distorts, takes out of context, and mistakes all the time,” Halperin observed, but these are “not central to his efforts to win”—unlike Bush, on his view. Halperin continued, “We have a responsibility to hold both sides accountable to the public interest, but that doesn't mean we reflexively and artificially hold both sides 'equally' accountable.”

No doubt Jennings is now squirming almost as much as Rather, whose Nielsens have nose-dived. And with good reason. Network managers are now painfully aware that they can no longer get away with false claims and pat denials. Fox News dominates cable TV (during the most recent ratings period, it averaged more viewers than CNN, CNN Headline News, MSNBC, and CNBC combined, and during the Republican convention, it even beat the Big Three networks, a first), while the blogosphere—which brought down editor Howell Raines at the New York Times a year ago—is an 800-pound gorilla with lots of time and zero tolerance for arrogance.

No wonder the network newsmen are in lockstep about the “people in pajamas”—the bloggers, who are becoming the fastest-moving and most important organs of analysis in the country. Napoleon would have recognized the syndrome. “There are two levers for moving men,” he noted. “Interest and fear.” Brokaw and Jennings want to preserve their fiefs for just a little while longer (Brokaw retires on December 1).

Après les hommes d'anchors, le déluge.

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