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January 11, 2005
WaPo: Thornburgh-Boccardi Findings A Blow To MSM

Howard Kurtz and Dana Milbank collaborate on an analysis of the CBS debacle for the Washington Post, determining that the damage done by Mapes & Co. goes far beyond the gates of Black Rock. They surmise, correctly, that the overall credibility of American mainstream media has taken a body blow, and that their audiences may never give them the authority they once had. Unfortunately, and for Milbank unsurprisingly, the two couch that analysis within a deeply partisan slant:

President Bush was reelected, and Dan Rather wasn't.

That, in a nutshell, is the outcome of a bitter four-month struggle between the White House, which insisted there was no basis for the "60 Minutes" report casting doubt on the president's National Guard service, and a major network whose controversial anchor chose to give up his job before the release of the outside panel's report that sharply criticized him yesterday.

Many Republicans couldn't resist crowing that the report, commissioned by CBS, repudiated the network's reporting on so many levels, given the longtime conservative animosity toward Rather as a symbol of liberal bias. And although the panel's report found no political bias by anyone at CBS, it was clearly a setback for the mainstream media against an administration that has often stiff-armed or ignored journalists, whom Bush calls an unreliable "filter" between him and the public.

Instead of looking for opinions supporting this analysis coming from more objective outsiders (such as done by Bill Carter at the NYT), Kurtz and Milbank only question political players, reducing the piece to a typical he said/she said tennis match. Apparently, Kurtz and Milbank reported on the subject but learned nothing from it. Even so, their analysis comes closer to the heart of the CBS scandal -- political bias -- than the Thornburgh-Boccardi report dared:

"I think it is part of a series of things that have gone on in the broader mainstream media that led to a decline in confidence among the public," [RNC chair Ed] Gillespie said in an interview, citing fabrication scandals at the New York Times and USA Today. As for Bush's Vietnam-era record, he added, "The public has made their judgment: They know the president served and was honorably discharged."

The impact of the CBS scandal was magnified both by Bush, who often disparages the media, and by Rather, who pugnaciously defended himself as the victim of conservative attacks. Rather drew the battle lines clearly in defending the story, saying the critics included "partisan political operatives," and told the outside panel he still thinks the accusations of Bush receiving favorable treatment are true, whether or not the documents are real.

The only quote from a reasonably disinterested third party comes from Harvard's Alex Jones, also quoted for better effect in Carter's NYT piece this morning. He notes that network-news viewership has declined twenty points over the past 16 years, and that the CBS report will damage that further:

"If you're a Bush person," Alex S. Jones, who runs Harvard's Shorenstein media center, said of yesterday's report, "it confirms in your mind that the press is out to get Bush. If you're a non-Bush person, you'll be dismayed that George Bush will appear to be vindicated and validated by CBS's humiliation."

In other words, neither side will trust CBS for its news sourcing any longer. The networks in general will also take a hit as viewers will migrate towards either the 24-hour news channels -- with which CBS has no affiliation -- or the Internet, where CBS' presence is miniscule at best. Only NBC has managed a strong Internet presence, but its cable news channels are frankly abysmal. All of the broadcast networks will suffer for CBS' sins, especially since they committed their own during this campaign; ABC's Halperin memo directing the news staff to go easy on Kerry at tear after Bush, and NBC's re-edit of Kerry's interview to remove his admission that he had not released all of his military records.

Kurtz and Milbank do give equal time to Democrats, which they could probably do without. They have Joe Lockhart, one of the most blatantly partisan political figures in circulation, complaining about GOP partisanship while desperately flogging the TexANG story:

Democrats chafed at the notion that CBS's failings would put to rest any question about Bush's wartime service. "I understand why the right will whip this up as a vindication, but they're just being partisan," said Joe Lockhart, a former spokesman for President Bill Clinton and for Kerry's presidential campaign.

Lockhart said "there was just as much sloppiness, just as much of a rush to judgment and just as many mistakes" during Clinton's impeachment. "I don't think we're certain the president fully fulfilled his National Guard service," he added.

They also include DNC spokesman Jose Cabrera valiantly trying to change the subject to Armstrong Williams, but the effort merely displays the desperation felt by the Democrats at seeing their mouthpieces slowly crumble into ineffectiveness. The mainstream media has long covered the Democrats' flank, and now they have been unmasked, even if the CBS panel couldn't bring itself to explicitly say so in this case.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at January 11, 2005 6:47 AM

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