Monday, January 10, 2005

A Couple of Notes on the End of RatherGate

Just got done reading the CBS News internal investigation report on Rathergate as well as the official reaction.

Observation No. 1: some conservatives like Jim Geraghty and Captain Ed are already complaining that the report refuses to acknowledge the role of "political bias" in the Rathergate scandal. Actually, this is a sound tactic. It's called "not buying trouble in the future."

One thing opinionists tend to forget: you're not supposed to fire people for "political bias."

We do not let someone go as a janitor because they campaign for Candidate X as school commissioner. And people do not fire political commentators because they say Candidate Z is an idiot--heck, that's what they're paid for.

If you fire someone from a job because they say "Candidate X is a turkey," that's in effect punishing someone for having a political bent. That's the slippery slope that leads to the Orwellian concept of the "thoughtcrime," and that's one you want to avoid.

In today's practice of journalism, "political bias" is recognized, but not officially. The establishment line is: it's OK for a reporter to have a political opinion, but you have to try (or at least give the appearance of trying) to be fair about an issue--interview all sides, and more than one source, if you can; get perspectives, etc.

If the report had officially found that CBS News personnel had displayed "political bias" in their story, it would have been very difficult for CBS president Les Moonves to take the necessary disciplinary action, because they would be accused of "conservative bias" or "cowardice in bowing to conservative whims" in taking said action. It is far better, from an objective standpoint, to document journalistic incompetence (and in Rathergate, there's a lot of that) than to say "X should be fired because he's biased in his coverage." Accusations of counter-bias are thus avoided.

In order to resolve Rathergate, it's important that you give the Top Brass the evidence to take action without the handcuffs to prevent it. And, like it or not, "political bias" is a handcuff.

Observation No. 2: Even without the "political bias" finding, there's enough information here to serve as a warning: not just to CBS News staff, but to journalists as a whole. Journalism students should take great care to read the whole report, not just to see the documenting of malpractice but to appreciate the importance of public perception.

Boccardi and Thornburgh are pretty thorough in documenting the aftermath of the Rathergate story. And no wonder: it's the aftermath that made the TANG document story big, not the story itself. They document thoroughly the actions that CBS News took to defend their story and outline the reasons why each action failed.

A major blessing is that the report is actually readable, not filled with jargon or legalistic babble. As such, it's a textbook example of clear communication.

Boccardi and Thornburgh's report does journalism education a great service, far more than Lord Hutton's report of last year.

Observation No. 3: A lot of bloggers may be wondering why CBS President Les Moonves hasn't terminated Dan Rather by now, settling for his retiring as CBS News anchor.

The answers are fairly obvious:

1. Dan Rather's "retirement" means he is no longer the public face of CBS News. The anchor position at the CBS Evening News is still considered the prestige position of the News division, the position of Cronkite. By staying on at 60 Minutes, Rather has in effect been given a demotion.

2. Rather won't be on the air as much as you'd think. Rathergate tainted his reputation, and everyone knows it--including the producers of 60 Minutes. Rather can no longer assume that anything he reports will make it to air--it has to go through other producers, editors, and be in competition with with stories from other correspondents. In short, his chances of being able to rehabilitate his reputation by reporting good stories aren't all that great.

But does he deserve a chance to fix his reputation?

Certainly. Dan Rather didn't get to the top of CBS News overnight. His style of aggressive reporting wasn't as sensational as, say, Geraldo Rivera's. He did great work during the early 70s and 80s (his "feud" with George Bush the Elder notwithstanding), at least in the eyes of the CBS brass. Based on that, Rather's bosses will cut him a little slack--but only a little.

UPDATE: Of the mainstream poli-bloggers, Hugh Hewitt is perhaps the most vitriolic in calling the Boccardi-Thornburgh report a "whitewash." Frankly I think he's being overly harsh; certainly Dan Rather and Andy Heyward don't come out smelling like roses, and a true "whitewash" would have enabled Mary Mapes to keep her job.

Even though the report doesn't officially find "political bias," it documents enough about the story and the aftermath to show plenty of "anti-Bush" bias, which is a different animal and one outside of the review panel's mandate.