Before September 11, important aspects of our security arrangements were based on the assumption that people, even terrorists, want to live. For example, airlines followed the rule that if a passenger’s bags were checked but the person failed to appear for the flight, his bags would be removed from the airplane. The idea was that a bomb could have been planted in the luggage. But as long as the passenger was on the airplane, it was assumed that his bags were safe, since no one — it was thought — would blow up an airplane with himself on it. After September 11, security arrangements were changed to take into account the new reality (or newly recognized reality) of the suicide bomber.
When he defended CBS’s publication of forged documents, Dan Rather spoke of the “checks and balances” that ensure the reliability of news coming from CBS, as opposed to news and commentary from the blogosphere. What are those checks and balances? Ultimately, the main check on the danger that a powerful media giant like CBS might abuse its position of trust by deliberately propagating falsehoods is the assumption that the network values its reputation for accuracy and trustworthiness. In the past, most people have assumed that while broadcast networks, wire services like the Associated Press, and newspapers will occasionally make mistakes, and will certainly spin the news consistent with their political biases, concern for their reputation in the marketplace, and even more among their peers, would prevent them from spreading outright falsehoods.
In the wake of the CBS scandal, that assumption must be reevaluated.
I don’t know how the forged document scandal will ultimately play out. I don’t know whether CBS will be forced to acknowledge that the documents are fakes, or whether Dan Rather will resign in disgrace. But I do know this: everyone who cares already knows that the “Killian memos” are low-quality forgeries.
Very few Americans are news junkies. Most people will probably never know about the CBS scandal, or will never have enough information to form a judgment about it. For that matter, most don’t care. But within the news business, and inside the relatively small slice of the American population where sophisticated consumers of the news dwell, everyone knows, already, that Dan Rather and CBS News tried to influence the November election by telling lies and publishing forged documents. CBS has been disgraced among its peers.
The fact that CBS was willing to barter away what remained of its reputation in exchange for an opportunity to help the John Kerry campaign requires us to re-examine our assumptions about the mainstream media, just as the emergence of the suicide bomber required us to re-examine certain assumptions about security. We never thought that a vast, powerful broadcast network would destroy its own reputation for political gain. Now we know that it can happen.
And it isn’t just CBS News. The Associated Press has, for most of its history, been regarded as a neutral, factual reporting service whose dispatches–reporting, not commentary–could be trusted, and were trusted, by thousands of newspapers. That, too, has changed. We have chronicled the astonishing story of the West Allis, Wisconsin Bush rally, where President Bush announced that he had just received word of President Clinton’s hospitalization. President Bush said that his thoughts and prayers were with the Clinton family, and the audience of Republicans cheered enthusiastically.
But that isn’t what the Associated Press reported. AP reporter Scott Lindlaw, in an article carrying the by-line of Tom Hays, fabricated a lie. The AP reported that Bush’s “audience of thousands booed. Bush did nothing to stop them.” That lie was disseminated to thousands of newspapers and television stations, and while a revised version of the story was later issued, the AP has never apologized, explained what happened, or disciplined either Lindlaw or Hays. What is remarkable, under pre-2004 assumptions, is that the lie was so easily uncovered and proved. Thousands of people were present at the rally, including many reporters. Audiotapes and videotapes of the rally were easily available. They showed, beyond a doubt, that the AP’s story was a lie. No one booed. Yet Lindlaw, Hays and the AP retailed the lie because they thought it would help John Kerry. Scott Lindlaw has been quoted as saying, “My mission is to see that Bush is not re-elected.” He and his employer gladly sacrificed their reputation for accuracy to achieve that goal.
So we have entered a new era. We now know that our richest and most powerful news organizations are willing to blow themselves up–to destroy their own credibility, once considered a news organization’s most precious possession–to achieve a political goal. The landscape will never look quite the same again. Those of us who still value truth must look at the mainstream media in a new, more skeptical and critical way, taking nothing for granted. Because, like suicide bombers, the mainstream news organs will go farther to achieve their political goals than we ever imagined.
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