Media is a word that has come to mean bad journalism. - Graham Greene
His face was once a totem, a comforting TV-screen touchstone. His voice and inflection lent suppertime credence to the myth of American permanence, safety and dependability, night after night, for a quarter of a century. It is surpassingly strange, therefore, to encompass Dan Rather's recent and abrupt metamorphosis. The former "CBS Nightly News" anchor, previously a study in constancy and predictability, has suddenly become a genuine threat to the entire mainstream news industry.
Last week, Rather filed a $70 million lawsuit (PDF link, Adobe Acrobat required) against CBS, its chief executive Leslie Moonves, former network president Andrew Heyward, CBS's parent company Viacom and Viacom's Executive Chairman Sumner Redstone.
The suit stems from a sensational September 2004 CBS report detailing documentary evidence of George W. Bush's poor performance during and constant absence from service in the Texas Air National Guard during the early 1970s. The report was met with an immediate chorus of scornful dismissals from Bush administration officials, Bush campaign spokespeople and right-wing bloggers that eventually cast doubt upon the authenticity of the documents. Within two weeks, CBS retreated in humiliation from the story. Rather staggered on as the "CBS Nightly News" anchor for a few more excruciating months, but finally departed on March 9, 2005.
Among the assertions in his suit, Rather claims CBS failed to provide him sufficient time and support to defend the veracity of his report, that the network essentially folded like sodden newsprint under pressure from right-wing advocates of the Bush administration, and that the entire matter permanently ravaged his professional reputation. Presumably, CBS finds Rather's public allegations disconcerting to at least some degree; their news section is already burdened by cratering viewership resulting from the Katie Couric fiasco, so the additional burden of this suit can only be another unwelcome complication in an already messy state of affairs.
The danger to the mainstream news industry in general, however, is not in the allegations themselves, but in the context surrounding them provided by a long-time insider who knows where all the bodies are buried.
Consider the first paragraph on the fourth page of the complaint. According to Rather, CBS chose to jettison both himself and the Texas Air National Guard story because, "CBS's parent company, Viacom, and it Chief Executive Officer, Sumner Redstone, considered it to be in its corporate interest to curry favor with the Bush administration."
Consider CBS's handling of a far more serious Bush administration scandal, the torture of Iraqis by American forces at Abu Ghraib prison, as described on pages 11 and 12 of the complaint. According to Rather, "Despite the story's importance, and because of the negative impact the story would have on the Bush administration, with which Viacom and CBS wished to curry favor, CBS management attempted to bury it."
"Even after obtaining nearly a dozen now notorious photographs," continues the complaint, "which made it impossible to deny the accuracy of the story, Mr. Heyward and Ms. West continued to delay the story for an additional three weeks... CBS imposed the unusual restrictions that the story would be aired only once, that it would not be preceded by on-air promotion, and that it would not be referenced on the CBS Evening News."
"What emerges here," writer Greg Sargent concludes on the Talking Points Memo blog, "is a striking portrait of a big news org that, fearful of pressure from conservative critics and eager to curry favor with the Bush administration, allegedly dragged its feet to an extraordinary degree in order to avoid revealing the truths it knew about a horrifying scandal of international dimensions. Sobering stuff."
Sobering indeed, and therein lies the threat. The willful collusion between CBS management and the Bush administration, offered by Rather to frame his accusations, illuminate an insidious, grotesque, and altogether deadly alignment of circumstances hiding in plain sight before the entire American populace. An explanation for why the legitimate fears and anxious uncertainties of the people are never soothed or clarified by mainstream news outlets like CBS, but are instead methodically aggravated and intentionally amplified by those outlets, begins to take shape in light of Rather's inside-view revelations.
Underscored here, in no uncertain terms, are the grim realities of modern American journalism, realities that have little to do with the original conception of the institution. While a number of the Founders were not especially enamored with the printed slings and arrows of the journalists of their day, they were united in the belief that a free and honest press was absolutely necessary to the safety and liberty of the country. "The only security of all," wrote Thomas Jefferson in 1823, "is in a free press."
American democracy ceases to function when people blither their votes into ballot boxes on the basis of opinions and ideologies that are swaddled in the beggar-rags of ubiquitous disinformation and bewilderingly muddled cant, but such is now and has long been this nation's common plight. Today's "free press," however, bears little resemblance to the conceived constitutional bulwark cherished by the Founders.
In its place, we now have a tightly-woven confederation of profit-seeking businesses that own virtually every print and broadcast news outlet of significance in the country. There is but scant allegiance to the truth found within these outlets, because their foremost priority when reporting on most issues of national consequence is to protect the interests of those parent companies and their advertisers.
If a parent company is heavily involved in the manufacture and sale of weaponry to the Pentagon, for example, that company's pet news outlet will skew its coverage to cast the most favorable light on a war - and on the politicians and political parties who support it - because that is money in the bank for that parent. There is nothing theoretical in this; NBC, MSNBC and CNBC all championed both the Iraq war and its architects, because they are owned by huge defense contractor General Electric, which has profited enormously from the war.
Media conglomerates like Time-Warner - whose massive holdings include CNN, HBO, Warner Bros., AOL, Time magazine, People magazine, dozens of other periodicals, film production companies, book publishers and television networks - are utterly incapable of providing objective reports to the American people regarding a broad constellation of significant and pressing issues. CNN is inescapably connected to all of Time-Warner's myriad subsidiaries and affiliates, and to the political affiliations, which guarantee the biggest profits for these entities.
Thus, many stories on a variety of serious matters (the crippling side-effects of well-hyped but poorly-tested pills, for example, or the abuse of workers in third-world technological sweatshops, or thousands of dead fish rotting downstream from a coal plant, or the deceptions that led to a failed war and thousands of dead American soldiers) almost never tend to see the light of mainstream-newsroom day. This is not called censorship or suppression or collusion or treason in the offices where such decisions are made. This is called sound business practice.
In their desire to curry favor with the Bush administration, the mainstream news media became willing accomplices to one of the most unspeakable crimes ever committed against the American people: the deliberate and strategic use and manipulation of fear by the Bush administration to increase their own power and influence.
The ordinary common sense and sound judgment of the American people was systematically attacked and debased, the psyche of the entire population was ceaselessly pummeled by a paranoid muddle of murky suspicions and nebulous fears, in order to create a population of permanently frightened and thus easily led dupes. The grisly reports of inhuman acts of torture by Americans, the undermining of the Constitution and our rights, the program of domestic surveillance, all this and so much besides, fell by the wayside because Americans became programmed by the news media to accept the unacceptable, lest they be branded as traitors or killed outright by swarming hordes of al-Qaeda/insurgent/shoe-bombers.
It will be many years before the nation recovers from this despicable onslaught, if indeed it ever does, and the mainstream news industry is exactly as guilty as the Bush administration for perpetrating this unspeakable, harmful offense. Even amid the demonstrably ruinous consequences of their behavior, the prime players of the mainstream news industry still languish like cream-glutted cats before the furnace of history, and still seek to curry favor from the Bush administration.
Nothing could be more dangerous to their conniving complacency than the exposure of their voluntary collusion in the promulgation of mortal lies and lethal hyperbole. Conversely, nothing could be more beneficial to the health and security of America and its citizens than exposing the sham passing itself off as "journalism," exposing what was so deliberately done to them, and exposing the grim truth that almost everything they've heard from their government and their news media has been a rank, rancid, self-serving pile of lies designed to imprison their minds and control their behavior.
Because he willingly participated in this for many years, Dan Rather cannot be considered some sort of saint or martyr. But it was that very participation which informs his lawsuit, and because he is now divulging what he came to know through his complicity, Rather is a true menace as far as the mainstream news industry is concerned. This is his final broadcast of sorts, his magnum opus in 32 pages, a parting jolt of desperately needed journalism, one last story filed to report the truth about what journalism has become.
By William Rivers Pitt t r u t h o u t | Columnist