By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Blumenthal defends Rather

Earlier this week, Sidney Blumenthal wrote a long piece for Salon headlined “Dan Rather stands by his story,” based on the false premise that it’s somehow necessary to rehabilitate Rather in order to believe George W. Bush did not fulfill his National Guard service in the early 1970s.

Several Media Nation readers are using Blumenthal’s piece to attack my Guardian column on Rather. I have posted a response here.

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  1. Anonymous

    Dan, you’re misreading Blumenthal’s piece when you say that it is “based on the false premise that it’s somehow necessary to rehabilitate Rather in order to believe George W. Bush did not fulfill his National Guard service in the early 1970s.” I think we all understand that it is possible for reporters, producers and editors to thoroughly botch a story that just so happens to be essentially true. What Blumenthal is saying is that Rather’s suit will reveal corporate-level capitulation to the White House and congressional Republicans. What I am saying is that perhaps instead of narrowing your focus on Rather and kicking him while he’s down, you should examine the issues Blumenthal raises regarding Viacom’s conflict of interest in the matter and CBS’s absurd “investigation,” carrried out a by a panel headed by two Bush family friends. That regardless of whatever Rather’s and Mapes’ failings may have been, they are scapegoats, not villains.What seems to inflame you the most is the idea that Rather may essentially have functioned as a reader or narrator on this story (or as you put it, “nothing more than a trained monkey”). On the 60 Minutes programs, Rather served as a host as well as a reporter. While it’s not clear to me just what Rather’s level of involvement was on this story, I thought it was fairly typical in such arrangements to be more directly involved in the news gathering and reporting of some stories than of others. While you heap scorn and derision on Dan Rather over stuff like this, the corporate suits who made this story go away and helped re-elect Bush are still dictating what we do and don’t see on CBS news.[I am Anon. 9:59, as well as Anon. 11:17, Anon. 5:37, and Anon. 5:40.]

  2. Dan Kennedy

    Here’s what you and Blumenthal don’t get. No matter how biased the investigation was against Rather and Mapes, the fact is that they internal investigators were charged with trying to figure out how fake documents made it into a relentlessly promoted story about the president of the United States.If Rather and Mapes had bothered to vet the documents, there would have been no internal investigation.

  3. Steve

    Boehlert puts in his two cents here.I’m a bit surprised this story has generated so much interest, but maybe that has more to do with my reading habits than whether the story is really resonating nationally.I have to take issue with one thing Boehlert focuses on:”Rather [claims], correctly, that nobody has ever proven that the memos he used in his report were fake”.That argument is specious at best. It’s up to Rather to prove the authenticity of the documents that back his claim, not for someone else to prove they’re fake.And it’s pretty late in the day to be arguing Bush’s “military service”. Bush is never facing election again, so what does his standing matter to anyone except historians?

  4. Anonymous

    Yes, Dan, they evidently screwed up regarding those documents. I think it’s clear both Blumenthal and I get that.That does not excuse the manner in which the “investigation” was carried out, or the manner in which CBS (and other news outlets) deliberately manipulated the situation to curry favor with the ruling party, so that the questionable authenticity of those documents became the story, thus killing the larger story.Here’s what you don’t get – Rather’s errors notwithstanding, his lawsuit is a very good thing for those who care about freedom of the press.

  5. Dan Kennedy

    Steve: Boehlert wrote, “That’s not so surprising considering they spent two entire presidential campaign cycles doing their best to avoid the Guard story. (The primary exception was Walter Robinson at The Boston Globe, who nailed the story in 2000, only to watch his mainstream colleagues collectively ignore it.) The CBS controversy in 2004 simply provided the cover journalists needed to walk away from the story, and it’s the same cover they cling to today.”Sounds like I wrote it — in the Phoenix right after it happened, and in the Guardian last week. I’m genuinely puzzled by what the issue is, unless I’m somehow not allowed to criticize Rather without including a couple of obligatory paragraphs about the evils of CBS and George W. Bush.

  6. Anonymous

    Dan, you are allowed to heap scorn and derision on whomever you want, regardless of how much scorn and derision they have already received.The fact that in doing so you are helping to obscure the larger issues, and are contributing to the smokescreen behind which the White House and the republican party have been hiding, might be something you’d want to think about.You might consider the possible merits of Rather’s lawsuit, rather than labeling it “sad” and calling him a “trained monkey.”

  7. Dan Kennedy

    It’s too bad that you’re more interested in ideological correctness than terrible journalism.

  8. Anonymous

    “ideological correctness””I.C.”, this buzzword could have legs!

  9. Anonymous

    I’m very much concerned about bad journalism. And I don’t expect you to take ideology into consideration in critiquing bad journalism.Rather and Mapes committed some bad journalism specifically in regard to those documents. But there is something perverse in what you’re saying – it’s as though because of their mistake in what was otherwise a sound story, they, and we, got what we deserve. It took a massive wave of cowardly self-censorhip throughout most of the MSM to kill the Bush-Guard story. You can’t blame that on Dan Rather. Any reporter or editor who looked at the details could understand that the story was essentially true regardless of the suspicious nature of those documents. It’s not “ideological correctness” to point out that the White House, not Dan Rather, killed this story with the cooperation of the corporate media.And it’s not excusing bad journalism to hope Rather’s lawsuit will shed more light on the truth.

  10. Mike from Norwell

    It’s been about 3 years since this happened, but I do remember following this as it became painfully clear that 60 Minutes had yet again blown it with this comical expose. When it finally turned out that the only IBM Selectric model in the early 70s capable of non proportional spacing was a specialized type setting machine that 1) cost more than the average car and 2) required retyping every line of text twice to adjust the kerning, they were clearly had.Now Blumenthal can label the pajama wearing media as following Rove’s direction, but we should all remember that it was this same ragtag collection that essentially ended Trent Lott’s career.The real issue is that the Internet allows all of us folks w/ too much time on our hands to figure out that inconsistencies in reporting (or flat out ignorance or falsification) can be brought to light quickly and not be buried.I had a client that was savaged by 60 Minutes in the 80’s. Having known the actual truth v. what was portrayed by Ed Bradley led me to question the validity of anything coming out of CBS after that point. If only the Net was around at that time most of these geezers would have shuffled off a long time ago. Fake but accurate indeed.

  11. Steve

    Dan – I don’t begrudge you your criticism of Rather and Mapes, not at all. And the silence of the media (other than Robinson) on this story in 2000 and 2004 was striking. CBS took its shot, at least.Like I’ve said, I doubt the suit will reveal much in the way of “evil” conspiracies. But Rove has sure managed this story extraordinarily well through Bush’s political career.It’s possible that something interesting might come out of this trial, but I doubt Rather will come out of this suit looking good. After all, if there *is* a media conspiracy, look who’s going to be doing the reporting and judging in the court of public opinion!

  12. Bill Baar

    I still welcome Rather’s lawsuit with the hopes it reveals who really typed these documents.If they’re forged, the pubic deserves to know the forger.If not forged, well, $70 millino to Mr Rather please.

  13. Rick in Duxbury

    Mike,If your client had anything to do with Audis, the 60 Minutes fiasco resulted in depreciation expenses to owners that have not yet recovered, 20-some years later. Great car, bad rap. (I have owned about 10 of them). That owners whose investment was harmed did not institute a class action law suit against CBS has always puzzled me. Supermarkets, cars, these guys love exposes. Shouldn’t they be exposed to the same level of scrutiny as the Herald?

  14. Mike from Norwell

    I’m not going to elaborate on my former client, as I don’t think it is fair to comment. However, if any of you ever find yourself in the same position knowing the actual truth v. what was portrayed on TV, you will undoubtedly equate the caliber of journalism practiced by CBS w/ the Weekly World News.And for all of you out there who are pursuing the “fake but accurate” line of thinking, the rest of the viewing public doesn’t buy that at all. Instead, if you’re caught falsifying, everything else that you’ve done is called into question, and that’s your fault, not ours.

  15. Anonymous

    Mike, it’s not that simple. The CBS piece was strong without the disputed documents. They were unnecessary icing on an otherwise sound story.

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