It wasn’t a Janet Jackson-style “wardrobe malfunction”—for which CBS was fined US$550,000 last week—but there’s no denying the network’s bigwigs are feeling a cold breeze in some unaccustomed places. And no one is chillier than Dan Rather. His highly hyped scoop-old military memos “proving” George W. Bush never completed his Vietnam-era stint in the Air National Guard and used his family connections to escape punishment-has been exposed as a fraud. The star anchor and his news bosses issued grovelling apologies, claiming they were duped by their source: Bill Burkett, a former National Guard officer with a deep and well-publicized antipathy for the President and his family. The network has appointed a special panel to look into the mess. But conservative critics, who have long charged that Rather and his colleagues have it in for the Republicans, are baying for blood.
At the very least, it seems the veteran anchor made some rookie mistakes in rushing his story to air on the Sept. 8 edition of 60 Minutes. No serious attempts were made to find secondary sources who could vouch for the information. And questions raised by at least two experts brought in to help authenticate the memos-the typeface and spacing were suspiciously modern-were apparently ignored. There have also been revelations that Rather’s producer put Burkett in touch with a senior adviser to John Kerry, a political gift the Bush campaign has not been shy about exploiting. Dan Bartlett, the White House communications director, was almost
gleeful when he pronounced the reports “shocking to believe” and “highly troubling.” It could all prove too much for the 72-yearold Rather to survive professionally. “He is very vulnerable,” says Bob Steele, who teaches and writes about journalism ethics at Florida’s Poynter Institute. “He now has a scarlet letter based on the journalistic problems with this story and his strong defence of it for a good period of time.” Already a bête noire for conservatives-he famously clashed on air with Bush the elder in 1988, and
there’s even a website dedicated to tracking his political leanings, www.ratherbiased.comRather now faces the danger of the viewing public finding him lacking in “credibility,” the essential mojo of television news.
Seemingly lost in the furor are the longstanding and still unanswered questions about Bush’s military service. In fact, the CBS debacle may end up inoculating the President against further charges that he shirked his duty-a scenario so perfect that some conspiracy theorists are suggesting the whole affair was a Republican dirty trick. In Vietnam the war is long over, but in America the battle never ends. JONATHON GATEHOUSE
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