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January 20, 2005

Shale Oil

Someone needs to remind Tom Shales of the Washington Post that he writes a TV column, not a political one. His years of faux-bemusement at President Bush's preference for blue ties finally came to an end this year when Kerry started showing up in them. His routine panning of Republican convention speeches, and praising of Democratic ones continues, in spite of the current tradition of Republican inauguration speeches.

Today, he derides CBS's Les Moonves's somewhat bizarre attempts to remake the Evening News. If he would stick to the facts, and forget trying to rewrite the background, he'd be a lot more convincing. Shales isn't faulting Moonves for focsing on style over substance. He's faulting Moonves for doing anything at all. Four hundred years ago, he'd have been one of Pope Julius's chief enablers.

Rather had long planned to retire later this year, but the date was moved up to March after controversy arose over the "60 Minutes Wednesday" report, for which Rather, busy with other news duties, basically just served as on-air correspondent. He did not do the reporting. The segment dealt with Bush's National Guard service and with his allegedly being found deficient by a commanding officer. It's common knowledge that Bush was a spoiled little rich boy who did not serve with any great distinction, so this story wasn't exactly a blockbuster. It was more a matter of new details.

That Rather "didn't do the reporting" is at least open to question. He was personally responsible for a vetting process that deliberately turned big, blind, CBS eye to evidence it didn't like. And in any case, what's a "managing editor" to do? If the Bush Administration tried to absolve the President of mistakes by claiming he was just reading the announcement, Shales would be all over that with President Cheney jokes and marionnette snarks. And while "spoiled little rich boy" is one interpretation, serving without distinction is a far cry from service with disgrace.

Unfortunately, the details weren't true. Or at least the segment made a sloppy case for their being true. Some of the documents uncovered were apparently faked by a longtime Bush basher. Mapes apparently failed to subject her sources to enough skeptical scrutiny and should have been more careful about the documents.

If anyone doubted that the Thornburgh investigation report would be used to put the most charitable face possible on CBS's electoral manipulations, they need look no further than this paragraph. The Challenger disaster didn't stop with the O-rings.

Stern action by Moonves, on the heels of an independent report criticizing the segment, was seen at least partly as a sop to quiet angry conservatives; for decades, going back to Edward R. Murrow's heroic debunking of Joe McCarthy, CBS News has been the far right's punching bag.

Oh, yes, that's what was going through the Poweline guys' minds. "Let's win one for old Joe. After all, they never proved that the list wasn't real." Please. McCarthy-ism was never as horrible as the dissolute McCarthy himself, who's only an idol to the aging Birchers trading stories as they wait for the staff to bring them their creamed peas.

Moonves is also despised by some insiders and observers for what he hasn't done. He has failed to come to Rather's defense even after Rather's 30 years of unquestioned loyalty to the company. Rather is such a team player that he apparently felt that standing by the controversial report, even as it was being condemned left and right (mostly right, of course) was the equivalent of standing by his colleagues and being supportive of people he had worked with and grown to trust.

I suppose one might equate taking a wrecking ball to your employer's most valuable asset with loyalty, but only in some alternate universe inhabited by myopic TV critics. Another example of Thornburgh and its Uses.

Network TV news is largely a commodity, and one whose futures are falling, at that. Chancellor, Brinkley, and Cronkite may have built the MSM Party, while Jennings and Rather and Brokaw lived off their accumulated credibility capital. But Rather led a borrowing-and-spending spree of that capital. Now there are probably no reporters large enough to rebuild that trust on their own.

Posted by joshuasharf at January 20, 2005 06:08 AM | TrackBack

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