When the news broke that Dan Rather was suing CBS News for $70 million for somehow destroying his reputation, the most noticeable reaction came from the media establishment itself. From the first story in The New York Times, it carried a different tone between the lines of the breaking news. Rather’s former colleagues think he’s lost his marbles.
The Times story by Jacques Steinberg said Rather’s career came to an "inglorious end" and now he’s taking "vehement issue" with CBS’s soft-scrub internal investigation. Rather claimed "to be reduced to little more than a patsy" in the story and now works for an "obscure cable channel." The implication between the lines? Gunga Dan’s picked one battle too many.
Almost no one outside the vast expanse of Dan Rather’s ego thinks this lawsuit is a good idea either for CBS or for Rather. Even people who were fired for helping him produce the despicable phony-document stunt against President Bush in 2004 said he had gone off the "deep end" by portraying himself as a clueless narrator who was too busy covering Bill Clinton’s heart problems to obsess over George Bush’s National Guard records. Contrary to Rather’s insistence that he was a patsy, his co-workers said he pressed hard on the story, chewing over every line.
The legal brief itself was Rather’s ego on parade, right from the first lines introducing the plaintiff as "Dan Rather, one of the foremost broadcast journalists of our time." He was the earnest Uncle Sam of journalistic integrity: "Throughout his career, Mr. Rather has promoted, championed, and been emblematic of journalistic independence and journalistic freedom from extraneous interference." Vanity, thy name is Rather.
Rather added to that hootenanny of chutzpah by appearing on CNN’s "Larry King Live" to declare, "We have to somehow get back to integrity in the news." Next we’ll hear Bill Clinton on that network promoting abstinence.
In Rather’s fevered brain, he is the populist against Big Corporations and Big Government in collusion, a vast right-wing conspiracy on steroids. He is the idealist in the middle of an Oliver Stone movie who keeps the red, beating heart of democracy alive. He declared at the top of the Larry King show that he sued CBS because "somebody, some time has got to take a stand and say democracy cannot survive, much less thrive" in the current era of corporate-government collusion.
Rather was not the victim of this episode. The wronged man in this story was President George Bush. Before you even engage Rather on his so-called "facts" in his disgraced story, there was at its very beginnings a glaring partisan double standard. Dan Rather never demonstrated an investigative journalist’s ardor to explore the draft records of Bill Clinton, but Rather and his enabler Mary Mapes dove into Bush’s records. He went after Bush’s military record during the 2004 campaign, but had no time to investigate the scandal surrounding Kerry’s Vietnam record.
Democracy is not synonymous with whatever hatchet job Dan Rather bravely pursues, but with each citizen’s input in the electoral process. The bloggers and reporters who picked Rather’s story apart? That was democracy in action, too. Even the liberal media quickly discovered in their probes that CBS had no checks or balances in their one-sided war on Bush, and rightly denounced them. That was also a free press doing its job.
What CBS put on the air in September 2004 was not "independent" journalism — it was partisan hackwork, dependent on Bush-hating Democrats to secure the phony documents. Mapes was pressed to put her document-leaker in contact with the Kerry campaign in a quid pro quo for the allegedly important papers. In the end, the proper I-word for Rather’s journalism on this story isn’t "independent," it’s "indefensible."
Dan Rather does have prominent defenders who are as loopy as he is. Rosie O’Donnell wrote Rather one of her trademark lower-case poems: "it has to shift / dan rather / saying there is a man behind the curtain / that he will not pretend / at one time being a journalist meant something / when we had a free press in this country."
On the Bill Maher show on HBO, leftist comedienne Janeane Garofalo gave Dan her support: "I have no doubt that there were executives at CBS that folded under right-wing coercion. … It doesn’t seem like it’s a democracy at all when you let that happen."
Garofalo is a pitch-perfect Rather ally, a woman who took to the little-watched MSNBC network and proclaimed President Bush was "unelectable, in my opinion" — on the night of his second inauguration.
The Rather Fan Club requires its members to be just like their idol — in complete denial.