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September 14, 2004, 6:49 a.m.
Goodbye to All That
Dan Rather goes the way of the dinosaurs.
I love the CBS News forged-document story. To paraphrase the abominable snowman from the Bugs Bunny cartoons, I want to hug it and squeeze it and name it George. Okay, I don't want to name it George, but you get my drift. If this story were hot fudge, I would smear it all over my body and then roll around in nougat.
Before I go on, please take a minute to finish your dry heaves of disgust as you purge that image from your minds.
Anyway, to yank you viciously from one metaphorical frame of mind to another, the PowerLine blog may be the Gavrilo Princip of the New Media Age. Or maybe it was that poster at Free Republic.
A quick refresher in world history. Prior to World War I, the world was a huge ball of molten slag and gaseous muck. But that's not important right now. Immediately prior to World War I, the world was divvied up into huge power blocs, basically known as empires. The rulers, bureaucrats, aristocrats, intellectuals, and guys in funny wigs running these empires refused to accept that their way of life was unsustainable, that the curtain was closing on their chapter under the sun ("Jonah Goldberg doesn't merely mix metaphors, he snaps their spines!" — self-blurb). A relatively unknown loser (no offense to the PowerLine guys, Freep, et al.) shot Arch Duke Ferdinand and the whole house of cards came down. Some empires were obliged to help their allies. Others were just greedy, seeing opportunities in others' weakness. The point — which doesn't warrant extremely close inspection — is that the giants seemed extremely powerful right until they fell over. Moreover, what caused them to fall over was their desire to prove that they were as strong as they used to be, that they were still the Engines of History, Masters of their Fates, and the Inspiration of Needlessly Ornate Furniture.
Something similar is going on with the Media Empires of today. Powerline or the blogosphere generally — which would be the "Black Hand" in this analogy — spotted the now-obvious fraudulent nature of these documents immediately. The charge is the journalistic equivalent of an assassin's bullet for Dan Rather. Had he refused to go to war in defense of these documents, he might have survived. Instead he's determined to go the way of the Hapsburgs and his career is over.
Oh sure, he'll probably ride out this election and retire in the next couple years with crates full of gold watches, plaques, awards, and attaboys from the establishment media. But the inevitable fact is that he will be drawn into a war he cannot win. The very best he can do is defend the slender possibility that these documents could be real. At this point it seems impossible that he can prove they are real. Indeed, Rather has already largely conceded all this. His defenses are all about how you can't prove the documents are false, as if the burden of proof for a journalistic icon is for other people to prove what he says is wrong rather than for him to prove it is right.
And, for Rather, this kind of draw is a loss. This could drag on for days or weeks or months. But even if it's days, the bleeding will be fatal. Already, the man looks like a sad buffoon, in denial that the quicksand is already up to his chest. His flailing about "partisan operatives" being behind the backlash makes him sound like the Norma Desmond of Big Journalism. Someone tell me when ABC News and the Washington Post become arms of the RNC, because I would love to see that memo. But before I believed it, I'd study the size of the "th"s a bit more closely than Dan did.
Remember when Joe Gillis told Norma Desmond: "You're Norma Desmond. You used to be in silent pictures. You used to be big."
She responded, I am big. It's the pictures that got small.
Dan Rather has flipped this around. The news is still big, but Rather has gotten very, very small.
The folks at Powerline compare the willingness of Dan Rather to chase a partisan hit job into the land of fiction to the revolution of suicide bombing. The sudden willingness, indeed eagerness, of terrorists to die with their victims changed the whole paradigm of national security. Similarly, Rather was willing to destroy himself in pursuit of a partisan attack. It's an okay analogy, but it misses a crucial point. Dan Rather didn't think he was going to blow himself up. He believed he was invulnerable. He was the equivalent of some powdered-wigged fool who believed that Austria would come out on the other side of a short battle with its reputation enhanced. Instead, it revealed that CBS News is really the Sick Man of Big Media. I have no desire to go trolling around inside Dan Rather's brain. We all know from Star Trek that a mind-meld with such an alien psyche could leave me permanently damaged. But it's clear that Dan Rather doesn't understand what's going on any more than those poor last dinosaurs understood why the tasty green fronds became so hard to find when it got cloudy. As an icon of the old world of big media, his self-inflicted extinction will surely be recognized as the end of not merely Dan Rather, but the age of Dan Rathers.
I don't have any better idea about what's coming next than the folks in 1914 did. I don't think blogs have the ability to replace CBS News any more than Gavrilo Princip and the Black Hand could replace the Hapsburgs. Blogs are great but they can't do the heavy lifting of investigative journalism. But it seems obvious to me that we are officially at the Goodbye To All That moment of old media.
Anyway, let me make one directly partisan point while I'm at it. Dan Rather considers it outrageous and offensive that anyone would question the judgment that led to this situation. He defends what appear to be very shoddy methods (reading letters over the phone to sources, asking sources not to talk to the press, etc.), as if only a "partisan" or a fool would question them.
Well, if you agree with Rather, maybe you should give just a smidgen more slack to George W. Bush about the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Bush's sources were more solid by several orders of magnitude than Rather's, and yet it is "obvious" to so many that Bush lied while Rather deserves the benefit of the doubt. George W. Bush had the head of the CIA, the intelligence agencies of all our allies, the Clinton administration, the United Nations, and most of the establishment media generally backing his understanding of the threat from Iraq. Dan Rather had a couple shoddy Xeroxes — not all of which were examined thoroughly or at all. He interviewed a partisan — Ben Barnes — a huge backer of Kerry whose story has changed several times. But because many who hate Bush believe he lied, they are willing to believe any lies that confirm what they already know to be true.
You might say the same to me, since I'm one of those people who've seen Dan Rather as a joke for a very long time. Fair enough. The difference is that I have better evidence on my side.