THE REAL STORY….If I’ve counted correctly, Instapundit has posted 65 separate items about Dan Rather this week ? and that’s not counting either the endless updates or the fact that he slowed down today in order to get some dental work done. Over at National Review Online, snarky Dan Rather references have taken over their entire home page today, which includes six full-length articles about Rather in addition to uncounted references on The Corner and the Kerry Spot.

What’s going on? Do these guys really think the Rather affair is that big a deal? NRO says they do, even going so far as to suggest that Bob Schieffer should be blackballed from hosting a presidential debate merely for working at the same company as Rather:

Schieffer should be replaced by someone from some other organization. This is not to say that Schieffer himself is not a decent guy or a professional, nor it is to suggest that he personally had any role in the National Guard story. But the CBS controversy is about more than one stubborn icon, Dan Rather. The credibility of the entirety of CBS News is at stake. If outsiders are being stonewalled, it is up to insiders who care about the reputation of CBS to step up ? insiders like Schieffer.

I think it’s worth pointing out that this is why the right wing is paying so much attention to Rather, just as they did to Jayson Blair and the BBC’s Andrew Gilligan ? but not to Judith Miller or Robert Novak. It’s not about the fact that the mainstream media makes mistakes ? of course they do ? it’s about keeping alive the persecution myth so central to American conservatism: that the liberal media is a corrupt and malign institution intent on crushing conservative dissent at every opportunity.

Sure, it’s an absurd argument, but that doesn’t mean it won’t work. After all, yelling loudly enough got the heads of both the New York Times and the BBC fired last year, both of them for journalistic misdeeds that were actually fairly modest. Meanwhile, Judith Miller, who plied patent falsehoods from Ahmed Chalabi on the front page of the New York Times, and Robert Novak, who cheerfully outed a CIA agent in his syndicated column, continue to ply their trade unhindered.

This game has been ongoing for a long time, of course, but conservative bullying and intimidation of the media has real-world consequences quite aside from personnel shuffling at the New York Times or the BBC. Just as Rathergate has helped bury bad news from Iraq this week, persistent complaining from conservatives has kept the overall coverage from Iraq relatively benign for over a year, despite a nearly unanimous belief among reporters on the ground that events there are even worse than they look. Within the past few weeks some of those reporters have finally begun saying that on front pages and the evening news, but it’s a year late and several billion dollars short.

Dan Rather can handle his own problems, but preventing conservatives from intimidating the press into manufacturing a phony balance regardless of where the truth lies affects us all. That’s what’s really at stake here.