- The Washington Times - Monday, January 10, 2005

Scapegoats are useful critters, but no matter how imaginatively you dress them, the camouflage always looks like that famous lipstick on a pig.

CBS News yesterday fired two men and two women (if you can’t be fair, try to look balanced) for their part in Dan Rather’s infamous cooked-up story about President Bush’s military service, or presumed lack of it. The investigating panel, chaired by Lou Boccardi, the former president of the Associated Press, and Dick Thornburgh, the former U.S. attorney general, cited “myopic zeal” as the source of the shame of it all.

Leslie Moonves, the president of CBS, said the usual grandiloquent things that network presidents say on these occasions. “We deeply regret the disservice this flawed ‘60 Minutes Wednesday’ report did to the American public, which has a right to count on CBS News for fairness and accuracy.”

Mr. Moonves left the most famous of all the little Moonvies, anchorperson Dan Rather, with the cut of his jib fairly intact. Dan is giving up his main job of sitting in front of the camera every night, trying to look wise while reading the news, but he won’t have to leave the network. The cut of his unscarred jib will be on display on other CBS programs.

Into the trash can went the senior vice president who supervises prime-time programs, the executive producer of “60 Minutes Wednesday,” his deputy, and finally, Mary Mapes, the producer of the program that got everybody sacked. (Television networks have more inflated titles than the State Department, and, always eager to sound as much like Hollywood as possible, calls its reporters “producers.”)

Sacking four little Moonvies was a hard day’s work for Leslie Moonves, but the damage he says was done to the American public was actually done to CBS News, not to the American public. The American public has actually enjoyed watching this little soap opera. The American public long ago got over the idea that it should count on television for the rest of the story. Television, as Richard Nixon famously put it, is to news what the bumper sticker is to philosophy.

The American public made up its mind about what happened with these faked memos after the “pajamahadeen,” as some people call the Internet bloggers (“computer guys who sit around in their pajamas”), outed Dan Rather and the Moonvies as shills for John Kerry and the Democratic presidential campaign. “Myopic zeal,” the most arresting figure of speech since Justin Timberlake blamed “wardrobe malfunction” for the blinding of the American public at the sight of Janet Jackson’s left boob, barely begins to tell the story of the network’s fanaticism to bring down the Bush presidency.

The Boccardi-Thornburgh report actually blames just about everything but “myopic zeal” for the scandal: a “new” and thus presumably untested “60 Minutes Wednesday” management team, deference to Dan and Mary Mapes, competitive pressures and “a zealous belief in the truth of the segment.” Neither Mr. Boccardi, whose old firm counts CBS as one of its most important customers, nor Mr. Thornburgh, a pol with an instinctive respect for guys with network cameras, could bring themselves to see the bias as big as a beam in the eye of everyone else.

“The panel,” they say, “cannot conclude that a political agenda at ‘60 Minutes Wednesday’ drove either the timing or the airing of the segment or its content.”

Too bad, because everybody else can. Dan Rather, who has feuded with Bush father and son for decades, returned to the subject of George W.’s career as a pilot in the Texas Air National Guard because it was the only stick CBS could find to swing at him in the waning days of the campaign. As an October surprise, it wasn’t much. It hadn’t been much of a surprise in April or May, either.

Mary Mapes, his producer who tipped the Kerry campaign in advance of the scandalous program and tried to get the candidate’s men fired up about it, inevitably becomes the head scapegoat. To believe that she is guilty and Dan isn’t requires us to believe that Dan Rather, of all people, is the virgin in the bordello.

It’s true enough that television news, like the movies, begins with illusion and suspension of belief and ends with spectacle and entertainment. But the lipstick that can’t hide the pig can’t hide the pretender in the bordello, either.

Wesley Pruden is editor in chief of The Times.

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