Why conservatives need Dan Rather

September 23, 2004|By Clarence Page

WASHINGTON - A right-wing radio talk-show host reminiscing about the old days in filmmaker John Sayles' new movie, Silver City, rails against Jane Fonda for a moment, then pauses to admit, "Gawd, how I miss her!"

That's how I figure a lot of right-wingers feel about CBS anchor Dan Rather, now that he has admitted, after two stormy weeks, that his network could not authenticate four documents that it used to raise new questions about President Bush's Air National Guard service.

A lot of Mr. Rather's critics on the right say they want him to go, but they really want him to stay. Every movement must have its enemies, real or imagined, to rally against and to galvanize its ranks. Ever since Mr. Rather answered a snippy remark from President Richard M. Nixon with a snippy remark of his own back during the Watergate era, the right has been gunning for Mr. Rather.

A right-wing Rather-bashing industry has grown up since then, ranging from the blog site RatherBiased.com to former CBS newsman Bernard Goldberg's book, Bias: A CBS Insider Exposes How the Media Distort the News, which is largely a recounting of how much Mr. Rather and Mr. Goldberg disagreed on how the news should be covered.

Mr. Rather also is an easy target because he is big and rich enough to elicit little sympathy from media colleagues when others criticize him for the sins of arrogance or sanctimoniousness. Contrary to widely held fantasies of big media conspiracies, journalists are about as easy to herd as cats. More often, we are all too happy to help outsiders bite the ankles of colleagues who appear to be getting a little too big for their pantaloons.

If the right did not have Mr. Rather to kick around, conservatives would have to find another audacious media punching bag. That's not as easy as it sounds. When you've already got control of the White House, Congress, the U.S. Supreme Court, AM talk radio and a good chunk of Fox News Channel, it's hard to portray yourself as an oppressed victim who doesn't have a voice.

So, after years of watching Mr. Rather serve as a media punching bag, I was not surprised to see him reflexively dismiss his critics, at first, as partisans of the right.

After all, the first public allegation that CBS News had used forged memos in its report questioning Mr. Bush's Air National Guard service did come from a blogger called "Buckhead" on FreeRepublic.com, a freewheeling soapbox for right-wing rants and chat rooms.

Buckhead posted his highly technical explanation, citing proportional spacing and font styles, within a remarkable four hours after CBS' airtime. As the Los Angeles Times was the first to report, Buckhead is Harry W. MacDougald, 46, an Atlanta lawyer without expertise in typography or typewriter history. But he does have strong ties to conservative Republican causes such as the Southeastern Legal Foundation, which helped lead the drive to disbar President Bill Clinton in Arkansas after the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

And just as we now know that the Bush White House didn't do enough objective fact-checking before it rushed into war in Iraq, a media behemoth such as CBS can get its hot news scoop way wrong, too. The network has apologized and announced it will conduct an independent review. I hope the review will be as thorough and credibly self-critical as the one that The New York Times ordered for itself after the Jayson Blair affair.

CBS, once "the Tiffany network," is tarnished and will have to work hard to win its credibility back. Mr. Bush's scheming political genius, Karl Rove, could hardly have cooked up a more effective weapon of mass distraction. Less than two months to go until Election Day and, thanks to Mr. Rather, media attention is focused on itself.

But, conspiracies or not, Mr. Rather has no one to blame for this mess but himself. Every journalist should remember the old Chicago City News Bureau slogan: "If your mother says she loves you, check it out."

After all, the fact that you have rivals, professionally or ideologically, gunning for you is all the more reason to be very, very careful about doing anything that might embarrass you later. Just ask Bill Clinton.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. His column appears Thursdays in The Sun.

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