Editor’s note: This article by Jonah Goldberg appeared in the October 11 2004, issue of National Review.
Across the media universe the questions pour out: Why is Dan Rather doing this to himself? Why does he drag this out? Why won’t he just come clean? Why would he let this happen in the first place? Why is CBS standing by him? Why … why … why?
There is only one plausible answer: Ours is a just and decent God.
Yes, I know: Schadenfreude — taking pleasure in another’s misfortune — is sinful in itself, and suggesting that the Almighty is in on the fun makes it doubly so. But what other explanation could there be? At every turn Dan Rather has had the opportunity to do what is both right and smart and instead he’s gone with Plan B. The metastasizing clownishness of Rather’s entire persona is one of the most glorious and enjoyable spectacles of the modern media age. If these trends continue, by the middle of October Rather will be showing up to read the news in a giant orange wig, shiny red nose and a flower that squirts seltzer whenever he mentions one of those hurricanes he loves so dearly. It is quite simply The Greatest Story Ever.
Yes, yes, yes: The finger-waggers and eat-your-spinach types are right — there are more important stories in the world. Iraq and the War on Terror are more significant than the spectacle of watching Dan Rather take himself apart like a robot ordered to put itself back in the box. But two points need to be made. First, this is an important — and breaking — news story. The so-called Tiffany Network’s Tiffany newscast and Tiffany newscaster got caught trying to peddle knock-offs like some street-corner hustler with a box of watches stamped “Rollecks.” And, unlike virtually every other major news organization that has been snarled in a gnarly journalistic scandal — The New Republic and Stephen Glass, the Times and Jayson Blair, the Washington Post and Janet Cooke — CBS has responded like a besieged political operation, ranting about “partisan political operatives” the way Nixon talked about his enemies in the final days. (The only difference: Nixon’s paranoia was justified.)
According to the Hieronymus Bosch scene in Dan Rather’s imagination, even the Washington Post and ABC News are participants in the Vast Right Wing Conspiracy, determined to keep serious questions about President Bush from seeing daylight — something even James Carville couldn’t say without bursting into laughter. All the while, the evidence of collusion between his staff and the Democrats mounts. I’m waiting for Rather to emerge, bleary-eyed, into the press briefing room to insist “I did not have word processing with that document” and then blame everything on Ken Starr.
Second, and more important, if we, as Americans, cannot take a moment to relish the comeuppance of the most enduringly pompous partisan yutz in Elite Journalism then the terrorists will have won.
So until someone proves that Michael Moore has been cashing checks from Osama bin Laden, this is the Greatest Story Ever. Oh, did I say that already? Who cares? It really is the Greatest … Story … Ever.
But why is it so enjoyable? One is reluctant to count the ways for fear of diminishing the joy of the whole by concentrating on the parts. Even beautiful paintings can seem utilitarian once you start talking about brushstrokes and canvas. And this story really is God’s Own Pinata: You can bash it from any angle and nothing but sweet, sweet goodness flows out.
Nonetheless, there are some confections in the pinata pile especially worth savoring. First, of course, is plain old comeuppance. For his entire career Dan Rather has insisted on saying a palpably untrue thing in the most dismissive and condescending tones possible: that he is not remotely liberal. Even better, he’s insisted that liberal media bias itself is “one of the great political myths.” In speeches, books, and interviews, Rather has told anybody who cared to listen that the whole media-bias thing was just a canard concocted by knuckle-dragging conservatives to, in his words, “force you to report the news the way they want you to report it.” And yet there is simply no conceivable way this debacle could have transpired without liberal — or anti-Republican — bias. 60 Minutes executive producer Josh Howard admitted to the Washington Post that “we completely abandoned the process of authenticating the documents.” No sane, honest, or knowledgeable person would ever believe that such a breakdown could occur in pursuit of a story brought to 60 Minutes by, say, Swift Boat Vets for Truth.
Then there’s the underdog aspect. While the Washington Post and ABC News have done admirable work truth-squadding Rathergate, the fact remains that the folks who were there first were what National Review Online’s Jim Geraghty has dubbed the “Pajamahadeen.” In the early days of the story, a former CBS News executive ridiculed the notion that a bunch of rubes from the sticks had any right to question the methods of the Great and Mighty CBS Eye. “You couldn’t have a starker contrast between the multiple layers of checks and balances [at the network] and a guy sitting in his living room in his pajamas writing,” he declared in defense of Rather. Of course, the pajama brigade was not only right, but it became increasingly clear that many of them were more qualified to authenticate the documents than many of CBS’s own experts. And even some of those experts warned Rather & Co. beforehand that the memos were dubious — but CBS rushed the story anyway and then tried to muzzle their own experts to keep their shoddy methods secret. But it unraveled anyway. Think of the CBS logo as the Eye of Mordor in The Lord of the Rings: It claims to see all, know all, conquer all, and yet two hobbits manage to sneak up on it and knock the thing over.
And of course one cannot leave out the exquisitely Shakespearean denials by CBS. More than a week in, Rather was still insisting that his source was “unimpeachable.” (Now that we know he got them from Bill Burkett we have to wonder how Rather defines “unimpeachable.”) He boasted to the Post’s Howard Kurtz that he’d like to be the one to “break” the story that the documents were faked. (Rather’s close to breaking a few other stories, including “Lindbergh Baby Kidnapped!” and “Bears Use the Woods as Bath rooms.”) Andrew Heyward, the president of CBS, kept insisting, “There’s such a ferocious debate about these documents,” as if the world were divided between credible people who believed the documents were real and credible people who did not, when in fact the only people — save a few left-wing bloggers — who clung to the authenticity of the memos were the beleaguered bastards at CBS News itself who feared the All-Seeing Eye would activate their pain collars if they broke with the party line.
But I think my favorite part may well be the new meme: “fake but true.” First of all, we should note that while CBS never used these exact words — they come from a New York Times headline — they will be indelibly written into CBS’s biography, in much the same way that Jimmy Carter never mentioned “malaise.” That’s because this was and is CBS’s position. Rather kept trying to take the focus off of himself by hectoring reporters to deal with the “thrust” of his story — i.e., “Why I Hate George W. Bush, by Dan Rather.” He even said in the New York Observer that “the longer we go without a denial of such things — this story is true.” To which the only reasonable response is for me to now reveal in these pages that Dan Rather eats a live capuchin monkey for breakfast every morning — and the longer he goes without a denial, this story is true.
What makes the fake-but-true defense so enjoyable is that it’s the tip of an enormous iceberg whose base reaches deep into the Left’s past. From Georges Sorel on, the Left has nurtured an abiding faith in the vital lie, the myth that speaks to a “higher truth.” That Dan Rather could offer the Tawana Brawley defense after decades of righteous bloviation about how he’s a just-the-facts kind of guy is too delicious.
When this went to press, Dan Rather had just admitted he was “sorry” that his source lied to him about “one” thing. Next comes the internal investigation, the inquiry into how the memos were made, and the probe into the extent of the involvement of John Kerry’s campaign. Normally, when a ship is sinking, you throw the anchor overboard. The good news is that CBS is clinging to theirs. In other words, I’m buying some more popcorn and another case of beer. Because this is the Greatest Story Ever.