The recent Dan Rather and Newsweek controversies hardly seem connected. But on closer examination, both incidents symbolize what has gone wrong with traditional news organizations.
The old assumption was that opinion media — such as the National Review, the Nation and the New Republic — offer a slant on current events, but that major news outlets, outside their designated opinion sections, do not. This commitment to disinterested reporting — and along with it the public’s trust in mainstream media — has been shattered in recent years.
It’s easy to see why people no longer feel they can rely on a CBS News or a Newsweek for information without bias. At CBS, Dan Rather persistently wished us to believe a clearly forged memo was authentic. Michael Isikoff’s reliance on a single anonymous and unreliable source about supposed desecration of the Koran made an already jaded public believe Newsweek was too eager to deliver a one-sided story.
Three now-common themes appeared in each controversy:
(1) The misinformation erred predictably against the current American government. In CBS’ case, anchorman Dan Rather impugned the president’s past military service. The Newsweek article questioned the ethics and sense of the U.S. military.
(2) These were not minor slips. The counterfeit documents Mr. Rather circulated undercut a sitting commander-in-chief in the midst of a national election. The fraud had the potential to alter the very governance of the United States. Newsweek’s wrong information incited the Middle East’s lunatic elements. Rioting and death followed, complicating the U.S. military effort.
(3) Neither organization was markedly contrite when exposed. The culpable Mr. Rather refashioned himself as the maligned target of the blogosphere. Newsweek spokesmen whined that a vindictive administration was hounding their management.
In response, the public assumed haughty news organizations were caught exhibiting the usual partiality — and then on spec retreated to victim status when challenged.
These recent controversies about our flagship news agencies were old news to the public. The New York Times still has not recovered from the Jayson Blair scandal, in which a young reporter wrote fictitious stories. Mr. Blair’s compliant editors worried more about political correctness than the qualifications and experience of their own reporters.
The same syndrome was true earlier at The Washington Post and the Boston Globe, which were red-faced over the fabrications of reporter Janet Cooke and columnist Patricia Smith, respectively.
In other example of media bias, CNN executive Eason Jordan confessed his network censored coverage of a mass-murdering Saddam Hussein — and later tossed offhanded false allegations that the U.S. military deliberately targeted journalists in Iraq.
With each expose the harm has been cumulative, driving the public away from a stained mainstream media. News purists mock the yelling of conservative talk radio, hypersensitive renegade bloggers on the Internet and cable news’ sharp elbows. They shouldn’t. All provide an antidote to “disinterested” High News the public no longer entirely believes.
Bigheaded lectures for the umpteenth time about the “century-old standards” at the New York Times, the “legacy” of Edward R. Murrow or the “prestige” of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism don’t cut it anymore in a world of Jayson Blair, Eason Jordan and Dan Rather.
Liberal copycats of talk radio fail, not because they are always boring but because there is little market or even need for such a counter-establishment media. The progressive audience already finds its views embedded in a New York Times or CBS “news” story. So why turn to a redundant and less adept Al Franken, Phil Donahue or Arianna Huffington?
Yet the irony is that though our major media are considered liberal, they are hardly populist. When Dan Rather and Newsweek are exposed, they seek refuge in stuffy institutional reputations and huffy establishment protocols.
Meanwhile, a million bloggers with pitchforks — derided by a former CBS executive as “guys in pajamas” — couldn’t care less about degrees or titles but use their collective brainpower to poke holes in the New York-Washington gatekeepers.
A fire-breathing Rush Limbaugh or snapping Bill O’Reilly might not receive many honorary doctorates, speak at Ivy League commencements or carry off the Peabody Award. Yet they come off as no more opinionated than an anointed Peter Jennings or insider Bill Moyers — and a lot more honest about their own politics and the medium in which they work.
If the left wishes to curb the influence of the new prairie-fire media, the answer is not to subsidize an Air America, the failing liberal talk-radio network. There is no need to lure Al Gore back into the picture, or to pour more George Soros money into another moveon.org-like Web site.
Instead, liberals themselves must begin balking at the infusion of their political views in the mainstream media. Once the public again trusts major news outlets to be objective, media bias will no longer be news.
Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and a nationally syndicated columnist.