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January 12, 2005
The Paranoia At The Top Of CBS News

Howard Kurtz continues his reporting on the CBS scandal and Thornburgh-Boccardi aftermath this morning, to his credit; most of his industry colleagues have busied themselves with other work and pretending that the controversy has passed. In today's lengthy look at the post-report reaction, Kurtz addresses the inconclusiveness of the report on the question of bias:

If there is one line in the 224-page report on CBS News that has set critics aflame, it is that there is no "basis" for concluding that Dan Rather and his colleagues had a "political bias" in pursuing their badly botched story about President Bush's National Guard service.

What, they say? No evidence?

"In any fair-minded assessment of how CBS performed and why they so badly butchered their own standards, that has to be part of the explanation," said former New York Times reporter Steve Roberts, now a professor at George Washington University. "It's not just that they wanted to be first, they wanted to be first with a story that was critical of the president."

The investigators hired by CBS "lay out a bunch of evidence of political bias, and very little exculpatory evidence, and then throw their hands in the air," said Weekly Standard writer Jonathan Last. "Rather is sitting here maintaining, despite everything, that the memos don't actually matter, that the story is right."

Kurtz also has panel member Louis Boccardi's explanation, which relies heavily on a legalistic approach to an analytical job:

Louis Boccardi, the former Associated Press chief executive who headed the panel with former attorney general Dick Thornburgh, said they "didn't feel we could say, 'We accuse you, Mary Mapes, of having a political bias and we can prove it.' Instead we said, 'Look, here are the things these folks did, that the program did.' " This, Boccardi acknowledged, "won't satisfy anybody who thinks anything short of outright condemnation, a finding of political bias, was an act of cowardice . . . that we didn't have the nerve, courage, wisdom, insight to say it." But, he added, "bias is a hard thing to prove."

I give Howard Kurtz high marks for continuing to pursue the story in depth while other outlets run away from the stink. However, Kurtz misses an opportunity to make clear what both Last and Roberts assert in their quotes. Kurtz implies that the only people claiming that the report whitewashed the political bias of Mapes, Rather, and CBS are Rather's critics, when a wide swath of independent analysts like Roberts also conclude that from the full report. Nor does Kurtz report more in-depth from that report to give his readers a clearer understanding of the bias issue (except for one brief Mapes quote), or even note Jonathan Last's work in the Weekly Standard in that regard.

In fact, while Kurtz uses all the same careful non-judgmental words that the CBS panel employed, he manages to bury his lead at the bottom of his article. Linda Mason, the new senior VP in charge of Standards -- a position created by Les Moonves on the panel's recommendation -- tells Kurtz that Dan Rather's paranoia appears to govern CBS News division policy:

"We didn't come clean soon enough," Linda Mason said yesterday. But, she added, "Dan does think he's constantly attacked. If we backed off every story that was criticized, we wouldn't be doing any stories."

First, anyone who publishes receives criticism, as my own comments section amply demonstrates. I don't circle the wagons and stonewall fact-checkers when that happens, which is exactly what Rather did. Nor do I consider it an attack, at least not until it gets personal. I also don't get paid to publish, and Rather makes millions, which should be enough for him to grow a thick skin and a hefty pair. If Rather feels he's under constant attack and therefore cannot acknowledge any criticism whatsoever, and if CBS is this comfortable enabling that response, it shows that the Memogate fiasco will happen again and again regardless of who CBS puts in charge of Standards or the division.

Many bloggers have conjectured on the parallels between Rather and Richard Nixon over the past four months. Now we see that even CBS acknowledges Rather's paranoia and its constricting effect on truth at Black Rock.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at January 12, 2005 6:00 AM

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