Despite CBS firings, Rather unscathed

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You may remember a little hoopla last year regarding the accuracy of a certain 60 Minutes report ?exposing? the cover up about President Bush?s service time in the Texas Air National Guard. Seriously though, the already battered journalistic tradition received a mixed blessing last Monday when CBS made the long-awaited results of its independent commission investigation public, igniting uproar in the journalism community and a predictable partisan debate. Topics of contention range from firings? not going high enough on the executive food chain to the report?s failure to declare a rampant political bias throughout the CBS News community.
For anyone familiar with the trappings of news reporting, many of the report?s conclusions were expected. However, when one considers the latter point of the two mentioned above, a full understanding requires careful consideration beyond a knee-jerk reaction.
Conservatives will be quick to claim liberal bias and express disappointment in the commission for its treatment of motivation in Rather and company?s transgressions. Those that do would be wise to consider the following quotation from Associated Press chief executive officer Louis D. Boccardi, one of the two commission members, as printed in the Houston Chronicle:
?We can?t prove that Mapes or Dan Rather did this thing in order to hurt President Bush,? Boccardi said. ?If you can?t prove it ? and maybe, in another way, the lesson of the Sept. 8 report is, don?t say it.?
Proving that Dan Rather and his partners in reporting crime were biased on this specific incident is much different from merely pointing out a track record of bias, which websites like www.rather convincingly do. I say, trust the commission. These men are highly respected, and one of the best moves CBS has made so far was their appointment.
The issue at the core of it all is Rather?s failure to recognize the significance of having no acceptable evidence to support his reporting. Rather remains unapologetic for his involvement (or lack thereof ) in the story. This is truly surprising. One would think that a reporter with over 20 years of experience behind the desk would be able to sniff out a fishy source. As with his minion, Mapes (of whom more detail below), he insists that the ideas in those documents represent the truth. Fine, Dan. Show us; don?t tell us.
While Americans and this aspiring journalist have good reason to be suspicious of anti-conservative reporting from Rather, we must keep in mind his accomplishments and his retention of a ?nose to the ground? attitude while enjoying the lofty heights of nightly news anchoring. He could be living it up in the studio, editing away his golden years, but instead he still goes out on assignment. (He was on his way back from Thailand, where he was researching a tsunami story, when the commission?s report was published.)
Interestingly enough, his hands-on attitude might be why he was hardly involved in the reporting of this particular story but left the legwork to his producer Mary Mapes, who was the only non-executive fired for her gross violations of journalistic principles. Rather, Mapes, and her superiors at CBS News deserved to be fired for their grossly negligent reporting.
So why is Rather, who resigned his spot on the CBS Nightly News effective in March, still working on 60 Minutes? Despite the scandal, I would chalk it up to his name recognition. Mapes, on the other hand, is the relatively unknown villain here. Despite having an impressive track record (she helped break the Abu Ghraib abuse scandal), she should have known better. Amazingly enough, Mapes claims to have violated no ethical standards, despite admitting to putting the source of the false documents in touch with the Kerry campaign ? a huge journalism no-no.
For Mapes, this is a story with a legacy of its own. The seeds of her disgrace were sown way back in 1999, when the story first surfaced as a possibility. It seems like the new memos were the ?smoking gun? evidence she was desperately looking for to end what must have seemed like a very long five years on the back burner for this particular story. I suspect that a combination of this desperation and an independent, irrational belief in the validity of her story led her to ignore her ethical compass. In short, the National Guard service story is one that should not have seen the light of a printing press room.