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Courage for Dan Rather

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Gee, just when I was all excited about
Wednesday's big premiere of the new CBS cultural
triumph Kid Nation, my old friend Dan Rather went
and blew my whole evening out of the water by filing a
massive lawsuit against the company.

Here we go again.

It has been three years since we aired our
much-maligned story on President Bush's National Guard
service and reaped a whirlwind of right-wing outrage
and talk radio retaliation. That part of the assault
on our story was not unexpected. In September 2004,
anyone who had the audacity to even ask impertinent
questions about the president was certain to be
figuratively kicked in the head by the usual suspects.

What was different in our case was the brand new and
bruising power of the conservative blogosphere,
particularly the extremists among them. They formed a
tightly knit community of keyboard assault artists who
saw themselves as avenging angels of the right,
determined to root out and decimate anything they
believed to be disruptive to their worldview.

To them, the fact that the president wimped out on
his National Guard duty during the Vietnam War -- and
then covered it up -- was no big deal. Our having the
temerity to say it on national TV was unforgivable and
we had to be destroyed. They organized, with the help
of longtime well-connected Republican activists, and
began their assault.

Actually, we had done a straightforward,
well-substantiated story. We presented former Texas
Lt. Governor Ben Barnes in his first ever interview
saying that he had pulled strings to get the future
president into the National Guard after a Bush family
friend requested help in keeping the kid out of
Vietnam.

And we showed for the first time a cache of
documents allegedly written by Bush's former
commander. The documents supported a mountain of other
evidence that young Bush had dodged his duty and not
been punished. They did not in any way diverge from
the information in the sketchy pieces of the
president's official record made available by the
White House or the National Guard. In fact, to the few
people who had gone to the trouble of examining the
Bush record, these papers filled in some of the
blanks.

We reported that since these documents were copies,
not originals, they could not be fully authenticated,
at least not in the legal sense. They could not be
subjected to tests to determine the age of the paper
or the ink. We did get corroboration on the content
and support from a couple of longtime document
analysts saying they saw nothing indicating that the
memos were not real.

Instantly, the far right blogosphere bully boys
pronounced themselves experts on document analysis,
and began attacking the form and font in the memos.
They screamed objections that ultimately proved to
have no basis in fact. But they captured the argument.
They dominated the discussion by churning out
gigabytes of mind-numbing internet dissertations about
the typeface in the memos, focusing on the curl at the
end of the "a," the dip on the top of the "t," the
spacing, the superscript, which typewriters were used
in the military in 1972.

It was a deceptive approach, and it worked.

These critics blathered on about everything but the
content. They knew they would lose that argument, so
they didn't raise it. They focused on the most
obscure, most difficult to decipher element of the
story and dove in, attacking CBS, Dan Rather, me, the
story and the horse we rode in on -- without respite,
relentlessly, for days.

Soon, traditional media began repeating some of the
claims and joining in the attack on the story. They
didn't do any real work on the substance of the story;
they just wanted to talk about typeface. And that was
an empty, unsolvable argument that did nothing but
serve the purposes of the Bush administration, which
had been fanning the flames of the controversy and
hoping to avoid any hard questions.

The fracas scared the bejeezus out of the CBS
corporate types who were completely unaccustomed to
the rough and tumble interaction of the blog world.
Frankly, the foaming-at-the-mouth response scared me,
too. These people WERE scary. Who wants to see her
picture online accompanied by digital catcalls
demanding that she be "taken out"? And that was one of
the milder posts.

But the truly chilling part of this entire saga is
what happened next. Though our story had raised
entirely appropriate questions about the president's
military record, though there had been substantiation
for everything we reported, though this was an issue
certainly worth discussing in wartime, all that was
lost in the melee that followed.

Because of the angry conservative outcry, the
corporation we worked for chose to walk away from an
uncomfortable controversy rather than stick up for its
reporters.

This is not a new fight. Journalism has always
pissed people off. It is supposed to. It should be
provocative. It should ask hard questions of everyone
on every side. It shouldn't play favorites and it
shouldn't fear honest criticism.

In a democracy, journalism cannot fear bullies or
pull its punches because somebody powerful might get
uncomfortable. That's when we all lose.

In retrospect, I think the real problem with this
story is that it ran three years too early. Imagine
that a report emerged today saying that President Bush
and his enablers had unusual problems finding the most
basic records, that key documents had disappeared from
official files, that he and his supporters dissembled
when asked direct questions. Yawn. The country
wouldn't bat a collective eye. No one would be
attacked for reporting that. That stuff is old hat
now.

But back then in the face of an orchestrated
attack, Viacom blinked. The company insisted that Dan
Rather issue an on-air apology. We were investigated
by a so-called independent panel that wasn't
independent and wasn't really a panel. It was a
cluster of securities fraud attorneys with no
journalistic experience fronted by a couple of
figureheads with strong ties to the Bush family.

In reaction to the Rather lawsuit being filed, I
read that Republican former Attorney General Dick
Thornburgh, one of the two panel leaders, harrumphed
that his investigation "speaks for itself." It
certainly does. I saw his stellar work firsthand.

Thornburgh and his minions went through all my
business emails and at one point during an
excruciating, all day session, he personally chose to
grill me on an email in which I had used a bad word. I
had referred to something as "horseshit" and I had
meant it. "Why had I chosen to use THAT word?" he
wanted to know. "Why did I feel it was it necessary to
use profanity in an email?" Good Lord. No adult
should ever be subjected to that kind of ridiculous
ritual. What horseshit.

Oops. Sorry, Mr. Attorney General.

In the end, although the Thornburgh panel did
clearly discover that the unwashed wretches in
newsrooms sometimes use foul language, the intrepid
group could not find evidence of bias in our work,
could not find malicious intent and could not find
that the documents were false. They found that we had
"rushed" the story, that we tried too hard to get the
story, that we suffered from "myopic zeal."

Our myopic zeal was what gave us the energy and
tenacity at CBS News to break the Abu Ghraib story and
every other decent, difficult story I have done in my
professional life. I think journalism today could use
a little more real zeal.

It still sickens me that good people at CBS lost
their jobs over this. It breaks my heart that people
with a political ax to grind interfered with a story
at a major network news outlet.

And I personally pray to God that somebody someday
will get some real answers on where George W. Bush was
for more than a year while other Americans were
fighting and dying in Vietnam. That we have no answers
this long after he has taken office and taken us into
two wars should disturb every American.

But I'm afraid this entire episode just encapsulates
what has happened to journalism in general in this
country. It has become corporatized, trivialized and
castrated.

I know that filing a suit had to be a tough
decision for Dan to make. But I'm not sure he had a
choice. This episode deserves to be examined again and
this may be the only way to accomplish that. Besides,
a lawsuit also gives him that delicious power of
discovery. Who knows what might shake loose?

In the meantime, this is what I do know.

Dan Rather is a legendary reporter who has spent
decades doing his job like few others -- while bullets
flew past his head, or while he was tied to a tree in
a hurricane, or when he was chasing down big stories,
sometimes on foot. He helped guide the country through
communal catastrophes like the Kennedy assassination,
Watergate, and 9/11. He has paid his dues.

And at 75 years old, Rather still has more
reportorial testosterone than the entire employee
roster at FOX News. It is a tremendous injustice to
journalism that he has to go to court to be treated
with respect.

Courage, buddy. Courage to us all.