My, this is ironic! In an essay defending journalism while attacking President Trump for labeling current day journalists as “enemies of the people,” Esquire writer Ryan D’Agostino both manages to prove Trump correct, and while lionizing disgraced journalist Dan Rather, inspires Rather to show how he exemplifies what’s rotten within his profession.
“In a wide-ranging interview,” the essay/interview ‘s description says, “the legendary reporter gives a clinic on journalism, its intersection with politics, civil rights, and the future of American culture.” This alone would normally keep me from reading such a piece, were it not part of my job to expose unethical mind rot. Rather is a legend, as the cliche goes, in his own mind. Having him give a clinic on journalism would be like Sweeney Todd giving a clinic on barbering, and no one should care what he says or thinks about anything, having proven himself to be untrustworthy and afflicted with warped reasoning.
Here, for example, is Rather’s description of the fake news scandal that cost him his reputation and career. Well, let me take that back: first read part of D’Agostino’s self-indicting introduction of it:
There were proven technical and even journalistic flaws in the evidence Rather’s team found—but no one questioned the truth of what they were saying. Bush never disputed the veracity of the claims. It was a strange situation: By way of a possibly forged document, they had uncovered a damning truth about the sitting president.
- Equivocation and deceptive verbiage: “Proven technical and even journalistic flaws in the evidence Rather’s team found.” The “technical flaw” was that the only tangible evidence Rather found was a forgery, and the journalistic “flaw” was that Rather’s report was built on a lie, which is what a forged document is.
That’s not “flawed” journalism; it’s a political attack disguised as journalism.
- The Big Lie: “no one questioned the truth of what they were saying. Bush never disputed the veracity of the claims.” Since Rather’s claims were rumors and unsubstantiated, nobody had to dispute them. You can see how Rather helped seed the Big Lie journalism culture we now see at work daily, and D’Agostino’s embrace of the tactic shows that Rather did his job depressingly well.
Just make an accusation without proof, and if the target doesn’t deny it, then it must be true!
- Possibly forged??? Possibly forged? There is no question that the letter in question was forged. D’Agostino’s use of “possibly” makes him complicit in Rather’s fraud. Nor did the forged document “uncover” any truth at all, because it was forged.
Now here’s Rather, who, as might be expected, even tops his pupil in stunning ethics blindness:
I’ve never been bitter about it. Would I have liked it to turn out a different way? Of course I would have. But when I say I’m at peace with myself, it’s that we reported a true story. In the process of getting to the truth, we didn’t do it perfectly. Which is to say we made some mistakes. And our bigger mistakes were after the piece had played, we didn’t defend it effectively. We were rolled over completely in the battle for what was then the early stages of social-media primacy. We were routed.
Whatever my faults are and were, loyalty to CBS News was not one of them. CBS News had a long history of standing behind its reporting, even when the reporting was controversial, maybe especially when it was controversial, and even when the reporting had not been perfect. All of that went out the door and I was unprepared for it. Nonetheless, what was then the new ownership—Viacom, a man named Sumner Redstone—was a big Bush supporter, and he made very clear that he wanted Bush to win the election. He couldn’t stand the thought of what we were doing, and he wouldn’t listen to “standing by the reporting.”
- That’s what they call journalism today: a “true story” is what a reporter “knows” is true, and valid evidence isn’t necessary.
- Rather’s rationalizations: #19, The Perfection Diversion, or “Nobody’s Perfect!” and “Everybody makes mistakes!” and #20, The “Just one mistake!” Fantasy
- “ We didn’t defend it effectively”? Using a forged document to base a news report on can’t be defended! All this time has passed, and Rather still won’t accept that. It is the central fallacy of modern journalism: the ends—meaning a political result the reporter favors—justifies the means, even fabricating evidence.
- Wow, Rather blames everyone but himself. It was social media’s fault! It was Viacom’s fault! It was CBS’s fault! No, Dan, it was your fault, you and your equally unethical, politically motivated producer. And you still won’t accept responsibility for shattering core journalism ethics.
- Incredible: CBS was disloyal to Rather by refusing to stand behind his unethical and falsified reporting. Well, I guess the news organizations have learned their lesson: Look at CNN and the New York Times. Standing behind misleading or false reporting is the norm now.
- The report wasn’t “controversial,” it was a lie, just as calling a false report “controversial” is a lie.
Rather ends his defense by repeating the “proof” that Bush never denied the unsubstantiated story about his going AWOL in the Air National Guard.
In the introduction to the interview, Rather is quoted as saying this, while comparing Richard Nixon to President Trump:
“…he would himself criticize individual reporters and journalistic institutions, but most of the time President Nixon would do that behind the scenes, or using surrogates. Now, with President Trump, he criticizes not only individual reporters but basically all of journalism. Every journalist is no good, is evil, is a threat to democracy, is treasonous. Everybody. He does it himself. He does it consistently, relentlessly, and he does it for the purpose of personal gain, which is to say keeping himself in office.”
Indeed, the President today criticizes all of journalism (as do I) because in the 50 years since Richard Nixon was elected, journalism has decayed from a critical institution of democracy tasked with informing the public to being polluted with what Professor Reynold accurately refers to as “political operatives with press credentials,” which is exactly the model Dan Rather set for them.
The President has indeed been forced to attack journalists (though not all journalists) and journalism to keep himself in office, because journalism has set out to remove him from office, contrary to the results of the election. Since the profession—or what once could be called a profession—refuses to police itself, President Trump’s choice is to either expose the news media’s corruption or submit to its abuse of power.
Dan Rather did not bring us to this point alone, but he played a significant part in getting us here. His words, and the fawning manner in which Esquire presents them, are strong evidence, and no forgery was involved.