Perhaps you remember Dan Rather – one, two, three – four anchors back at the CBS Evening News. In September, 2001 he was not deemed, as had been his predecessor Walter Cronkite, the most trusted man in America.
On the contrary, since a testy Watergate era exchange with Richard Nixon in 1971*, Dan Rather had steadily become synonymous on the political right with liberal bias in the news media.
So it was especially notable that it was he on David Letterman's late night talk show six days after the 9/11 attacks who lined up behind the conservative Republican commander in chief, no matter what.
Well, I couldn't get stronger, David, that this is time for us, and I'm not preaching about it - George Bush is president, he makes the decisions and [BREAKING UP], you know, as just one American, wherever he wants me to line up, just tell me where.
Yikes! Suspending journalistic independence in the name of patriotism, before a live studio audience. Alas, this declaration of submission foreshadowed two years of the media's largely uncritical acceptance of Bush administration's claims leading to the Iraq War, and beyond - the phantom weapons of mass destruction, for example.
Much of the U.S. media, led by The New York Times, allowed themselves to be suckered by disinformation from Vice President Dick Cheney and other administration figures who then brandished Times’ reports as having uncovered the terrifying secrets.
The press would go along to regurgitate fantasy accounts of battlefield valor. Remember PFC Jessica Lynch’s gun-blazing capture and rescue and Corporal Pat Tillman’s heroic death under enemy fire? Both were officially propagated lies.
Remember Mission Accomplished? Here's how it sounded on TV:
It was an impressive sight from the deck of the Abraham Lincoln, this wartime president coming in at about 150 miles an hour.
It was quite an arrival onboard the aircraft carrier.
This whole photo op was carried off with military precision.
He became the first U.S. president, ever, to land on an aircraft carrier in a jet. It was clearly…
That was eight years, a trillion dollars, more than 4,000 American military deaths and countless thousands of dead Iraqis ago. All of this credulous reporting, it is now all too clear, because the press wanted to be, like Dan Rather, on the right side of a good fight, the freedom-loving side. Except, that our freedom hinges on the press being free and freely willing to question authority.
When the WMDs failed to materialize, when an insider debunked the “Yellowcake” hoax, when Abu Ghraib pictures emerged, when civil liberties were trampled, the quiescent media were finally awakened from their spell to do their real patriotic duty.
Thus, did they uncover one administration outrage after another, as well as shed precious light on the complexities of war, geopolitics, domestic politics, corruption and democracy itself.
For his part, and in a deep irony, Dan Rather would be hastened into retirement after an expose about George Bush's own version of patriotic duty. This was so-called Rathergate, the newsman’s controversial story alleging that the future president shirked National Guard commitments in the Vietnam era.
Though no evidence has ever been produced challenging Rather’s premise, the poster boy for liberal bias was caught supporting the allegation with a forged document, and soon thereafter was replaced as CBS anchor.
So yes, being duped can be a career-ending offense, but not necessarily, not if bloody war is in the air and you’re merely following the leader.
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That's it for this week's show. On the Media was produced by Jamie York, Alex Goldman, P.J. Vogt, Sarah Abdurrahman, Chris Neary and Nazanin Rafsanjani. This week’s show was edited – by Brooke. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineer this week was Rob Grannis.
Katya Rogers is our senior producer. Ellen Horne
is WNYC’s senior director of National Programs. Bassist composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. On the Media is produced by WNYC and distributed by NPR. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
And I’m Bob Garfield.
*In a story that aired the weekend of September 9, Bob Garfield stated that Dan Rather and Richard Nixon had a "testy Watergate era exchange" in 1971. That exchange in fact occurred in 1974.