Former CBS News anchor Dan Rather says what happened when he reported in 2004 on former President George W. Bush's Air National Guard record in the early 1970s should serve as a cautionary tale about the state of the news media in general and the threat posed by perpetrators of the "big lie."
Rather, 80, who was booted from the anchor chair after right-wing bloggers attacked the story, said too many people are willing to accept the "big lie" as truth -- especially if it supports their pre-conceived notions -- if it's repeated often enough.
In an exchange of e-mails with UPI, Rather, who has chronicled his career in "Rather Outspoken, My life in the news," said he stands by his story.
Bush "got into a 'Champagne' unit of the [Texas] Air [National] Guard because of special privilege granted through his powerful father's influence," Rather said. "This was arranged to insure he wouldn't have to go to Vietnam. Once in, he apparently did OK for awhile but later began refusing orders, slacked on his job and then disappeared for a year. These are facts, and we reported the truth of them."
When CBS broke the story Sept. 8, 2004, on "60 Minutes II," it was immediately attacked by several Web sites, including Free Republic, Little Green Footballs and Power Line, which claimed memos on Bush's absence and refusal to obey orders by Col. Jerry B. Killian were faked. The sites alleged the typography was computer-generated -- an impossibility for the time period. By the time Rather and his team were able to prove the claims were without merit, the damage had been done.
"The ruckus over the Killian memos effectively diverted any and all further journalistic inquiry into Bush's activities; in close-up magic, they call it misdirection. While every other news outlet was preoccupied by the bloggers' sleight of hand about superscripts and proportional spacing, no other reporters picked up the legitimate question of whether Lieutenant Bush had actually fulfilled his military obligations," Rather wrote in the book.
Rather still sounds incredulous CBS and parent Viacom failed to back the story and "cravenly sought to appease the White House" because of perceived threats to its broadcast licenses. The way it played out becomes "a cautionary story of how modern, big corporate media works, how it really works behind what the public knows," Rather said.
The question is how bloggers were able to get away with it.
"There are signs many people may not be as interested now in truth as they are in seeing their preconceived notions and prejudices validated," Rather said in response to an e-mail question. "But it's worth remembering that ours is a vast geographical nation of well over 300 million people containing a complex multi-racial, ethnic and religious mix. This makes it hard to generalize about national attitudes.
"About the attitude shifts you and I perceive, they may well have their roots in Watergate. A case can be made that a new -- at least revived -- cynicism was part of the residue from what happened when a president led a widespread criminal conspiracy from the Oval Office. Certainly there has been a poisoning of national discourse in the years that have followed."
Rather noted those who hate the "traditional press" often are upset because "it so often exposes tough truths and resists reporting news through the prism of other people's prejudices and preconceived beliefs." He bemoaned, however, the press "doesn't do as much of this as it once did, or do it as well, but still, at its best, does a lot of it."
"I do think that there remains a thirst among many Americans for checked-out, vetted for accuracy straight news," he said.
With the advent of media mega-corporations, we've seen the rise of the "corporatization, politicalization and trivialization of the news." It's a problem, Rather observed, not just for the press but for society as a whole "because serious coverage of serious issues by a free and independent -- truly independent -- press is the red, beating heart of democracy and freedom."
Much of Rather's book deals with the Kennedy assassination and the other major stories he's covered during his more than half-century in news, including observations on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which threaten to degenerate into Vietnam-like disasters because of a failure to accurately assess the strength of the insurgency.
Why do we seem doomed to neglect the lessons of past wars?
"Because we sometimes tend to have a kind of national amnesia. And because we don't study and ponder history nearly enough," Rather said.
In the last few years, Rather has been plying his skills once again as an investigative reporter, this time for Mark Cuban's men's interest cable channel HDNet. Rather reports on Syria's freedom fighters in Tuesday's installment.