Thursday, September 20, 2007

Dan Rather Throws It All Away

Here's a takeway for all you journalism students trying to make sense of Dan Rather's $70 million lawsuit against CBS: Don't lie. Especially on the air.

I'm not referring to the story about President Bush's Texas Air National Guard service, the flashpoint which led to Rather's ignominious departure from his journalistic home of 44 years. That may or may not have been a properly vetted story but it is clear that Rather believed in it at the time — and his lawsuit suggests that he still does.

Being wrong isn't a capital offense in journalism. Being wrong and knowing in advance that you were wrong absolutely is one, without possibility of appeal. Ask Jayson Blair or Janet Cooke.

Here is what you do when you are "instructed" to report something you don't think is true: You quit on the spot. Period. You never allow the business side to make editorial decisions. Period. You go down to the bar, order a stiff one, contact Howard Kurtz, The Columbia Journalism Review and Editor & Publisher (and TV Newser if you're a broadcaster) in any order you like.

According to his suit, CBS management "coerced" the former CBS anchor "into publicly apologizing and taking personal blame for alleged journalistic errors in the broadcast."

During the 12 days from its airing and the retraction, Rather, already flypaper for conservative tormentors, defended the story on the air against increasingly strident and convincing criticism about its authenticity. But then, instead of going down in the blaze of glory he seeks now, Rather read an apology on the Evening News. He called the story a "mistake" and added: "I want to say personally and directly, I'm sorry."

Rather, in his filing, said he delivered the statement despite his "own personal feelings that no apology from him was warranted."

What we now know, because Rather tells us without a whiff of irony, is that he capitulated to pressure from the business side to say things on the air he did not believe to be true. It is hard to imagine he will ever be able to restore his reputation from this fundamentally egregious offense. Beyond that, I wonder what damage he might even have done to journalism or at the very least the already-dying evening news "Voice of God" anchor format. Questions about corporate consolidations of the news industry are newly legitimized if the allegedly unbiased editorial face of one of the oldest brands in journalism is seen to be so easily be drawn into what he characterizes as a PR charade.

The pressure he says to which CBS was acceding — mending fences with the White House — is irrelevant. Even if the business wanted to sell out in Macy's window Rather didn't have to be part of it. And, if he knew then that this was what was going on behind the scenes, it makes his decision to acquiesce even more damning.

So was Rather a tool or a fool? What is certain that this self-appointed guardian of standards — whose recent criticism of the CBS Evening News and his replacement, Katie Couric, perhaps foretold the direction his venomous anger against CBS President Les Moonves, a defendant in the current suit, would take — has provided the enemies of journalism powerful evidence that mistrusting reporters is justified.

I'm not sure what the outcome of this suit will be. Rather was shown the door but he wasn't fired, like Don Imus. He was allowed to work out his contract, perhaps albeit as a shadow of his former self. I'm sure it was humiliating. Quitting might have also let Rather retain a modicum of dignity.

But whatever the outcome of this suit Rather has damaged journalism in a way his critics would never have been able to do on their own. A prominent prince of the medium has given aid and comfort to connivers and charlatans who flourish when the public's trust in journalism is diminished.

His is a terrible admission and it ought to spark a teaching moment in J-Schools, starting today.

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