CBS tarnished reputation


 B S, THE OLD TIFFANY NETWORK THAT WAS THE VERY GOLD STANDARD IN THE DAYS OF THE MURROW BOYS, IS CRACKING UP WITH A VENGEANCE, in the same mode as some other old liberal entities that are also mired in woes. Like dissolute heirs to great fortunes, the descendants of the old Democrats, the Kennedys, and the civil-rights movement have been living for years on moral and political capital accrued 40 years earlier and have at last used it up. In their minds’ eyes, they are FDR, JFK, Martin Luther King Jr., and Edward R. Murrow at their best. In real life, they are Jimmy Carter, Ted Kennedy, Al Sharpton, and, of course, Dan Rather. What all four have in common is a great future behind them, and prospects ahead that seem bleak.

Between 1933 and 1965, between the Great Depression and the year the last civil-rights bill went through Congress, the Democrats turned in a stellar performance. If Franklin Roosevelt’s grip on economics was never too keen, he did hold a dispirited country together in difficult times. He was one of the first to acknowledge the menace of Hitler, and when war came he pursued it with vision and ruthlessness. Harry S. Truman picked up early on the danger of Stalin, and crafted the framework that would win the Cold War, backed up by other Democrats such as John Kennedy and Henry (Scoop) Jackson. Though not initially eager to take on the issue, Kennedy became the first president to define civil rights as a moral imperative, a cause his successor continued.

But Johnson’s second year, 1965, was a point of transition, and the party rapidly went off the rails. Since 1968 , they have lost six of nine presidential elections; they have lost Congress and their role as majority party. They haven’t had a good new idea or produced a real leader in more than four decades, and their old model — a picture of FDR sitting beside Winston Churchill has been supplanted by one of Jimmy Carter sitting beside Michael Moore. You’d think this might tell them something, but they remain immune to argument, secure in the view they are still the vox popu1i. Can’t anyone see who they were?

Once upon a time, the civil-rights movement was the national conscience. It fought for a long time, in often desperate circumstances, and success came slowly—first in 1954, then in the early ‘60s, with bloodshed, before the dam burst. But success was the movement’s enemy; it never adapted to new circumstances, under which racism itself was not the main problem. It dropped color blindness for race-based entitlements, took up identity politics, and declared war on conservative blacks. It turned to race-baiting as an all-purpose weapon. Don’t like someone’s tax policy? Call him a racist. Don’t like his foreign policy? Call him a racist. Don’t like his new position on Clinton’s impeachment? Call him a would-be member of the KKK. Around this time, the NAACP became an adjunct to, making it their mission to drive up the Democrats’ black vote through fear. John Keny is only too happy to do this: “We are not going to allow them to put a Do Not Enter sign on the White House door,” he thundered to the Congressional Black Caucus. This was too much for even the Washington Post, which felt compelled to mention that the door was open enough to the many blacks who pass through it en-route to their jobs in the cabinet. How long before this behavior becomes just too mbarrassing? Don’t hold your breath.

Back in the ‘60s, John F. Kennedy campaigned and won as a centrist Democrat, running to the right of Nixon on security issues. A fairly conservative anti-Communist, he was restrained and ironic; he needled opponents, and never once indulged in partisan boilerplate. For this, Kennedy was seen as a refreshing change from the traditional pol, red-faced and ranting, and filled with self-righteousness. Flash forward four decades, and his one living brother is a traditional pol, red- faced and ranting, and full of self-righteousness--given to wholesale and quite vicious abuse of the opposite party. Worse, he is a devotee of the isolationism of their father (that JFK spent a lifetime moving away from); he understands the current terror threat and the need to combat it as well as Joseph Kennedy understood Hitler and the need to fight him. If this were the l960s, Ted would lambaste his brother as an arrogant ideologue for his pledge to bear any burden and pay any price to certify liberty and attack his rush into a nuclear show-down over missiles in Cuba (with no proof whatsoever that the Russians intended to use them) as a plot made up in Massachusetts for political gain. Not surprisingly, the lesser Kennedy is a pillar and symbol of the modem Democratic party, and a great friend to the nasty new civil-rights movement . And all three, of course, are favorites of CBS.

Ah, CBS. Like the Democrats the Kennedys, and the civil-rights movement, CBS had some great times in the past. Its heyday was the wartime 1940s, when a corps of correspondents stationed in Europe—Eric Sevareid, Charles Collingwood, David Schoenbrun, and of course their leader, Edward R. Murrow—powered the CBS network to a position of prominence, and made themselves household names. As Stanley Cloud and Lynne Olson’s The Murrow Boys makes evident the “boys” in their latter days were not always so glorious, but they were a class act in their era, and, not unexpectedly fostered a legend. And, according to Cloud and Olson, “no one a t CBS during the Rather era paid more lip service to the Murrow tradition than Rather himself,” to the point of Rather’s fabricating a most touching story of an encounter with Sevareid in the Vietnamese jungle, where the older man passed on the torch. “Unfortunately,” the authors inform us, “not a word of this charming tale was true.”

Overtime, the primacy of CBS would vanish: “By the nineties, the things that had distinguished CBS News were gone—Its world-wide coverage, its commitment to the highest standards of journalism and to serious commentary . . . its impressive libraries, its army of researchers. . .

One by one the networks proud foreign bureaus were closed.” CBS News (along with much of what is now called “old media”) had moved into the role of permanent opposition to the conservative movement that had begun in 1980 with Reagan’s election, continued in 1994 with the Republican seizure of Congress, and reasserted itself after September 11 with George W. Bush’s War on Terror.

For months journalists from Newsweek’s Evan Thomas to the ABC News weblog “The Note” have been stating the obvious: that the political press corps wants Bush to lose, and has been framing its stories according1y . “This campaign has been less one between George W. Bush and John Kerry than one between George W. Bush and old media,” says Michael Barone, citing, among other things, “the absurd over-concentration on the discredited stories about Bush’s service in the National Guard, the huge over coverage of Richard Clarke’s absurd charges . . . the absurd over-coverage of Joseph Wilson’s now utterly discredited charges . . . the intense coverage of the Abu Ghraib prison abuses.” All four of these cases got lavish and one-sided coverage on 60 Minutes, the showcase production of CBS News. The prison-abuse story was lovingly produced by the same woman (Mary Mapes) who produced the notorious forgery story, and who has been described as being obsessed with Bush’s performance in the Texas Air National Guard.

Until now, however, most media had contented themselves with merely egregiously slanting news that had actually happened. It was left to the Tiffany network and the soi-disant Murrow heir to go on to invent things, or to gladly echo people who did. The Murrow boys in their day made much of their efforts to resist sponsor pressure, or pressure from outside forces, to influence coverage. No one imagined a day when CBS correspondents would go out of their way to actively serve outside forces, making themselves the linchpin of what looks now like a highly coordinated effort by Democrats to revive John Kerry’s campaign. By the end of Week One, Rather was reduced to babbling that his memos were fake but accurate, demanding that the president answer charges based on a forgery and insisting that the word of an 86-year-old Bush-hater, about things supposedly said 30 years ago by a dead man (and vigorously disputed by that man’s son and widow), should be reason enough to believe that Rather’s charges were right. “It drives me up the wall when I hear people at CBS invoking the name of Murrow,” said Sander Vanocur. “Most of them couldn’t carry his typewriter. CBS is now like a cult.”

“It is almost axiomatic that the more an institution breaks faith with those who built it, the more it sanctifies them,” say Cloud and Olson. Sic transit the Democrats, the Kennedys, and the civil-rights movement. And, of course, CBS.



National Review Magazine

Vol . LVI, No. 19 October 11, 2004. (Pgs. 20-22)

215 Lexington Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10016

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