Remember when the right-wing noise machine wouldn’t stop celebrating its role in the departure of Dan Rather from CBS News? “Rathergate,” as the wingnuts called it, is still regarded as a moment of glory for the right. In a 2004 Boston Phoenix piece, Dan Kennedy explained the history behind the right’s lust for Rather’s scalp:

Since Richard Nixon’s presidency, the right has been screaming that the mainstream media are biased in favor of liberals. They’re not. Just ask Bill Clinton or Al Gore, or for that matter the family of the late Ronald Reagan, who was given generally worshipful coverage both during and after his hard-right presidency. Still, the screeching has served a purpose. By complaining loudly and incessantly — by “working the refs,” as media critic Eric Alterman has put it — the right wing has been remarkably successful at intimidating the media into giving conservatives squishier, more respectful coverage than liberals get…

It is within that context that CBS’s blunders — worthy of a few firings in any case — are so much more toxic than they might be under other circumstances. After all, this isn’t Jack Kelley, a Christian conservative who made up war stories for USA Today. Nor is it Jayson Blair, who disgraced another great liberal bogeyman, the New York Times, but who demonstrated no particular ideological edge in doing so. It’s not even NBC’s Dateline blowing up General Motors trucks in order to show that, well, they blow up.

No, no, no. This is Dan Rather, the right wing’s Public Enemy Number One. Dan Rather, who mouthed off to Nixon when the then-president challenged him at a news conference. Who so infuriated George H.W. Bush with a string of Iran-contra questions that the then-vice-president later referred to him as a “bastard.”

It infuriates the right that Rather didn’t shrivel up and go away after his departure from CBS News. They cannot stand the fact that millions of Americans still have respect for him, and that his words still command attention. They certainly cannot stand his efforts to prod the mainstream press towards civic responsibility with regard to its coverage of the Trump administration.

YouTube video

Having been brutalized by right-wing ideologues for decades, Rather clearly understands that if mainstream-media entities bow down in subservience to such ideologues, and pulls punches in an effort to prove a negative (i.e., that these entities do not have a “liberal bias”), the Fourth Estate will have effectively abdicated its Constitutional responsibilities.

One can’t help wondering if Rather’s words have had a direct impact on current CBS Evening News anchor Scott Pelley, who has drawn attention in recent months for seemingly refusing to play pattycake with the prevaricators in the White House. Rather’s words should have an impact on every working journalist and every news executive in this country.

Interestingly enough, in March 2006 Pelley himself acknowledged the problems that inevitably arise when mainstream-media entities prioritize balance over truth:

Pelley’s most recent report [on climate change], like his first, did not pause to acknowledge global warming [deniers], instead treating the existence of global warming as an established fact. I again asked him why. “If I do an interview with Elie Wiesel,” he asks, “am I required as a journalist to find a Holocaust denier?” He says his team tried hard to find a respected scientist who contradicted the prevailing opinion in the scientific community, but there was no one out there who fit that description. “This isn’t about politics or pseudo-science or conspiracy theory blogs,” he says. “This is about sound science.”

But doesn’t the fact that there are a lot of Americans who are skeptical of global warming – not well respected scientists, perhaps, but ordinary people watching the segment – warrant at least some recognition of the other side? “There becomes a point in journalism where striving for balance becomes irresponsible,” says Pelley.

Well said.

The Fourth Estate’s fear of being accused of having a “liberal bias” led the press to defer to the Bush Administration when it lied this country into war a decade ago. That same fear led the press to both abandon any serious scrutiny of Donald Trump during the 2016 campaign. That same fear led the press to salute the Syria strike and embrace the forces of false balance. Rather is challenging mainstream-media entities to get over this irrational fear and pledge allegiance to the truth; if the press is not up to this challenge, our democracy will fall down.

Our ideas can save democracy... But we need your help! Donate Now!

D. R. Tucker is a Massachusetts-based journalist who has served as the weekend contributor for the Washington Monthly since May 2014. He has also written for the Huffington Post, the Washington Spectator, the Metrowest Daily News, investigative journalist Brad Friedman's Brad Blog and environmental journalist Peter Sinclair's Climate Crocks.