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The CBS Scandal: Chickens Coming Home to Roost

Monday, 20 September 2004 12:00 AM

For that matter, why should anyone be “shocked, shocked, shocked” that CBS News tilts to the left? That is something that goes way back to the pre-Rather days.

In 1988, while Rather was beating the dead horse of the Iran-Contra flap, his producers gathered up all the mud they could squeeze out of that nearly two-year old witch hunt.

“This is going to finish Bush,” one of them boasted.

By the time Rather took to the airwaves for an interview with then Vice President George H.W. Bush, he was prepared to throw the kitchen sink at him with rapid fire when-did-you-stop-beating-your-wife questions. Bush, then running for president had been forewarned about what was coming, was loaded for bear and struck back. The result was arguably network television’s most explosive interview ever conducted with a presidential candidate. It was great theatre.

Mainstream media folks despised George H.W. Bush - who once had been perceived as a “moderate” - for being Ronald Reagan’s vice president. Lacking Reagan’s communication skills, the elder Bush’s candidacy was viewed by the establishment media as a golden opportunity to right the terrible wrong (as they saw it) of having to cover a conservative president for eight years.

They hated Reagan for his ability to go over their gate-keeping heads to communicate directly with the American people. This was evident at a going-away party for a retiring CBS News correspondent.

After slamming the Reagan administration in his swan song speech, the correspondent then looked around the room, and accompanied by gales of laughter, said he was dead certain that no one there had ever voted for Ronald Reagan. (He was wrong with regard to at least one attendee, but no matter).

After George H.W. Bush had taken a thrashing in one of the 1988 pre-convention contests, one producer greeted another in the elevator the next morning by saying, “Enjoying George Bush?” to which the other replied in the affirmative.

Damage control experts disagree as to whether the current memogate scandal will result in permanent damage to CBS’s credibility. But this whole mess has been coming for a long time.

Back in the early 70’s, one CBS producer—no conservative - ridiculed CBS News as “the Edward R. Murrow Memorial,” a reference to the correspondent whose status at the company was that of a patron saint.

To be sure, Murrow did break new ground in his reports out of London when the Germans had bombed that city in World War II. After the war, however, Murrow did a number of questionable things.

One example was his documentary, “Harvest of Shame,” which ultimately led to Cesar Chavez’s farm workers movement. Murrow allowed people to hide their identities in making charges against the growers. Whatever merit their stories may have had (and they were strongly denied at the time), other commentators noted the irony that Murrow was using unidentified accusers. Was this the same Murrow who had castigated Senator Joe McCarthy for supposedly not allowing people to face their accusers?

Speaking of which: Murrow’s hatchet job on McCarthy was widely criticized at the time, and not merely by McCarthy’s supporters. Arthur Herman deals with this in his 2000 book “Joseph McCarthy: Re-Examining the Life and Legacy of America’s Most Hated Senator.”

“Despite CBS’s pretensions,” he writes, “‘See It Now’ (Murrow’s TV show) was not a report at all, but a full-scale assault, employing exactly the same techniques of ‘partial truth and innuendo’ that critics accused McCarthy of using.”

John Cogley, McCarthy’s most hostile Catholic critic sharply criticized Murrow for his “distorted summary and selective use of video clips.” Prophetically, as if to predict the current Rathergate scandal, he added (This was 50 years ago, remember), “Television is dynamite. Combined with selectivity, it could explode in any person’s or group’s face.”

One could cite Daniel Schorr’s CBS broadcast from Germany on the eve of the 1964 Republican National Convention in which he tried to link that year’s GOP presidential candidate Barry Goldwater with the remnants of Hitler’s nazis.

Or take Walter (“Most Trusted Man in America”) Cronkite shedding his thin sheen of “objectivity” to declare the Vietnam War a hopeless endeavor based on the Tet Offensive in 1968, even though the event—though a political setback—was actually a military victory.

Now fast forward to 2004, and as I write, even more evidence emerges that CBS News has presented us with something that goes beyond “distorted summary and selective use of video clips,” and wanders into the category of fraud and forgery.

The bottom line is that this train wreck has been coming for a long time. It did not start with Rathergate. And again, it shows what can happen when people who work in large newsrooms share the same worldview. There is a strong tendency to want certain stories to be true, and careful fact-checking takes a back seat.

The chickens are coming home to roost.

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For that matter, why should anyone be "shocked, shocked, shocked" that CBS News tilts to the left? That is something that goes way back to the pre-Rather days. In 1988, while Rather was beating the dead horse of the Iran-Contra flap, his producers gathered up all...
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Monday, 20 September 2004 12:00 AM
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