Go here to see just how painfully obvious it is that the CBS memos were fake.
I'm a self-avowed media whore, but for some reason this story has been making my eyes glass over as if I'm watching round-the-clock hurricane coverage. I'm not really a network news junkie, in fact to be honest Rather looks startlingly old to me in recent appearances, so the fate of one of the most powerful newscasters in the world is of little interest to me. There are a lot of little lessons in this story, though, and I'd like to offer my own slightly detached take on the brouhaha.
Network television has spent the last 60-70 years crafting a monolithic brand of confidence, objectivity, and accuracy for themselves. Their monopoly on the widespread distribution of information now has deep cultural roots that very few Americans ever thought to question before now. The rise of 24 hour cable news networks offered an alternative to the 5pm national news broadcast, but the underlying confidence in the media to present unbiased facts remained intact for a while. Then Fox News spoiled all the fun by starting a wildly successful cable news channel that cartoonishly exposes the way in which a news story can be biased and still remain factually accurate. What should have been a televised version of a small feisty conservative opinion magazine instead became a media behemoth in it's own right, and so the inevitable comparisons to the other news organizations could not be ignored. Fox News continues to grow it's core audience of average Americans bored and alienated from the monopoly of 'serious' news outlets, all the while sending the media establishment into paroxysms of anger and indignation. In a PR stroke that could have come from Karl Rove himself, they branded themselves the 'fair and balanced' network with a cheeky wink and then watched while the media barons and liberals everywhere tripped over themselves to demonize, dismiss, and basically give Fox a huge amount of free press. They allowed a hostile marketplace to brand Fox News as a shamelessly partisan tool bent on destroying the integrity of the news business. If only the fox hadn't been so stupid, however, he would have realized that B'rer Rabbit wanted to be thrown in the briar patch. The other cable news channels scrambled to re-format themselves in Fox's image. MSNBC still can't decide which direction it wants to go, propping up awful conservative commentators to ape the O'Reilly factor. All the while, a seismic question slowly began to emerge in the minds of the public: if FoxNews spins things the opposite direction than the other major news outlets do, and they're shamelessly conservative, then what are the other guys? Their claim to objectivity was in jeapordy. The rise of internet publishing added fuel to the fire, as there seems to be an unlimited supply of opinionated conservatives and independents out there who were bursting at the seams to set the record straight and rail against the Guardians of Objective Truth in their ivory tower.
Unfortunately for the guardians, it wasn't possible to own up to their own brand of opinionated journalism and cash in on this wave of viewership, not after so many years of presenting themselves as the arbiters of truth and unbiased reporting. Who knew that the unwashed masses wanted their information with a kick? It must have been hard for the veterans of the industry to watch as America tuned in with voracious hunger to the shameless, glitzy world of opinion journalism. So they dug in, many of them true believers in the myth of objective information, and aimed the giant apparatus of their media arsenal squarely at Fox, and all of those pesky 'right-wing' online wackjobs. But try as they might, Fox kept winning the day, and they didn't even have to lift a finger. The crumbling foundations of the media establishment started to give way under the new pressue of having to actually justify itself, and several key scandals that would have never captured national attention before became a kind of rallying cry for an emerging class of pundits and average Americans, fed up with the one-sided narrative that has been shoved down their throats for so long, and armed with the most powerful tool to ever emerge in the world of publishing. After Google perfected the search capabilities of the internet, anybody with a modem had an immense library of research and information at their fingertips. Turns out not everyone was partial to the vision of the world as decreed from high atop the perch of traditional media, and now they had a voice to combat it.
Many of these information warriors are from a younger generation that was raised with computers and didn't grow up with only 3 TV channels to amuse them at night. My own impression of the talking heads that dictated the news to us was that they were vacant and silly, cracking bad jokes and reading off of teleprompters. I imagined that they got their jobs solely because they could speak well and looked nice in a suit. The era of Cronkite was over, and even now the idea that Dan Rather is somehow personally responsible for the content of his broadcasts seems a little odd to me. He just reads whatever they put up there for him, doesn't he? This is probably one of the reasons that the hot-headed opinion journalists were so appealing to the rising generation of viewers. At least they came off as somewhat genuine. Real assholes, giving you their real opinion. Even if you disagree with them, you enjoy the show they put on, and probably enjoy hating them just a little bit.
All of this must just be like a living nightmare to a man like Dan Rather. A man who seems to truly believe in his role as speaker of truth to power. The problem with this is that unchecked, the powerful become warped and confused, even more so when they still believe that they are on the side of the powerless. The downfall of the liberal boomer generation is that it refused to admit that it had grown up and become the establishment. Now these upstarts, these stupid kids with their idiotic ideas about the economy and the state of the world, their obscene fascination with devil-spawn like Ronald Reagan, and worst of all their ignorant support for a WAR of all things. Didn't they get the memo that war is inherently evil and to be avoided at all costs, even outrageous unnecessary costs? Don't they understand that it is the responsibility of the younger generation to resist the evil machinations of the greedy money-grubbing corporate hierarchy, which everyone knows is really in control of everything. I mean, hellooo...they're Republicans!
And so the liberal left went into a state of panic. This could simply not be happening. They had fought for too long to wrest control of the information distribution network in this country in order to fight the powerful forces of darkness that controlled everything else. To let it all crumble around them just because these...buffoons wanted to play newscaster was simply unacceptable. So it is that we find ourselves throught the looking glass. Conservatives are the rebels, the upstarts, the activists, the champions of freedom and liberty for people that aren't even American. And liberals, in a state of shock, find themselves in the unlikely position of fighting to retain the past, to return to the glory days of network news, and rail against the audacity of a Republican President who dared to liberate an entire nation just to get re-elected. These and many more ironies abound in the increasingly confusing playing field of American politics. In the end, of course, the politicians are even better than the newscasters at affecting sincerity and truth, when in reality once you're inside the beltway the real differences end with which side of the aisle you sit on.
So Dan Rather got fed up. If you know deep in your heart of hearts that something is probably true, and that truth has the potential power to wound your mortal enemy, who wouldn't be tempted to take a bunch of poorly forged documents at face value? Like some mouthpiece said, even if they're fake, they're reflections of the truth. One might be willing to forgive the average enraged liberal for such a tempting error. But if your job and your reputation as a dedicated acolyte of truth are anchored in your responsibility to obsess over the details until you are absolutely sure you are not misleading the public, then the sin becomes a mortal one. That's why so many people are calling for Dan's early retirement.
But it doesn't end here. The NYTimes didn't stop crusading against this President just because Howell Raines fell from grace, and the awful ideological underbelly of media titans doesn't go away because Dan Rather quits his job. Now we have to figure out what the hell to do with the existential gloom that lurks just below the surface of this crumbling edifice of truth and reality. We have to find real leaders who are as passionate about fixing things, here and around the world, as they are about maintaining their positions of power. And we don't have another 30 years to do it. The clock is ticking with an urgency that we haven't felt since the cold war, and in a more diffuse and unpredictable way. And while Rome threatens to burn, we bicker and shout at one another, certain that if only our side was in control everything would be better. Adament in our belief that the real devil is a goofy looking man from Texas, or a goofy looking man from Massachussetts. Unless someone with the vision to truly confront the devil that we dare not even look at directly emerges out of this battlefield of pettiness, then, as the cliche goes, the terrorists have already won.