Tuesday, September 28, 2004

Rather's 'Memogate': We Told You So, Conservatives Say
Peter Johnson
USA TODAY - Via Gail DePoli

A two-man panel appointed by CBS is now looking into what went wrong in the "Memogate" scandal involving Dan Rather and his Sept. 8 60 Minutes piece, which questioned President Bush's military service in the Texas Air National Guard during the Vietnam War.

But fueling recent anger toward the network is a decades-old complaint by conservatives that Rather and CBS News are pro-Democrat and liberal, and that both use any chance they get to bash right-leaning politicians and issues.

Issues of bias aside, observers say that Rather's personality and colorful history, mixed with recent editorial calls and CBS' initial strident defense of what turned out to be flawed reporting, have created a firestorm. And the controversy may be remembered as one of the defining stories of the 2004 campaign.

Last week, Rather, who'll anchor CBS' coverage this week of the first presidential debate, told USA TODAY that he respects both President Bush and his father and has no ideological ax to grind. He has long denied that either he or CBS lean left.

CBS staffers defend the anchor and the network. Veteran White House correspondent Bill Plante says detractors are approaching with biases of their own: "If you're predisposed to believe that, then how am I going to convince you otherwise? It's like nailing Jell-O to a wall."

Mike Wallace says that the liberal tag is bogus and that he has "nothing but professional respect" for Rather. Wallace and his longtime producer Bob Anderson say that no one at CBS ever tests the political winds before deciding on a story. "Liberal, conservative, it never occurs to anybody," says Wallace, who has befriended both Malcolm X and Nancy Reagan.

"We have always historically felt that if we catch hell from both sides on a given issue or story, then we've done the story right," says Anderson, who describes himself as a "Goldwater Democrat."

But the label has managed to stick all these years precisely because "there is some reason for it," says New Yorker writer Peter Boyer, a veteran CBS watcher. He notes that Rather also "has been uniquely prone to incident in his career" ? from being assaulted in Midtown Manhattan as his attacker chanted "what's the frequency, Kenneth?" to Rather's bizarrely signing off from The CBS Evening News in the '80s by saying "courage."

Two famous video clips ? Rather jousting with President Nixon at a Texas broadcasters convention in 1974; and he and the senior George Bush, then vice president, going at each other in 1988 over the Iran-Contra scandal ? have been repeatedly used by conservatives as evidence that Rather has it in for Republicans. (It's hard to imagine Rather's competitors, NBC's Tom Brokaw or ABC's Peter Jennings, acting similarly, Boyer says.)

Then in recent months, 60 Minutes scored a number of interviews with former members of the Bush administration who have turned critical of the White House. It culminated in June when the newsmagazine talked to the right wing's biggest foe: Former president Bill Clinton, promoting his memoir, was granted an unprecedented full hour.

Finally, at a time when "even the most casual and moderately informed viewer" knew that John Kerry, tarred by conservatives in the "swift boat" ads, planned to make an issue of Bush getting special treatment during Vietnam, "lo and behold, in the middle of this comes the 60 Minutes story," Boyer says. "It was kind of a perfect storm for those inclined to believe that CBS News is the repository of biased, anti-conservative, anti-Bush evil."

Conservative cartoonist Bruce Tinsley says several studies have shown that the media are overwhelmingly liberal, and he doesn't buy their claim to be unbiased.

"They say, 'OK, so we're liberal, but it doesn't affect our jobs. We put on our objective journalist's hat when we walk through that door.' That's like me saying, 'Yes, I do sit on the board of Halliburton and several logging companies, but when I go in there to cover environmental issues I put on my other hat and I'm objective.' I don't think it is human nature to be able to do it, but somehow most journalists get away with saying that," he says.

So his syndicated King Features strip, Mallard Fillmore, will wade into the Rather-CBS fray starting Oct. 4. The first strip paints Rather as paranoid, envisioning the scandal surrounding the memo story as some sort of Nixonian plot.

"I was trying to get across something of Dan's personality, but also the idea that he really does seem, when confronted, to go off the deep end a little bit and make himself look really silly."

Has CBS historically ducked the question of its supposed liberal bias? No, says Wallace, who will host a small dinner party for Rather this week in New York. "We are what we are. We have a reputation still for objectively covering the news."