Dan Rather’s big interview with Saddam Hussein Wednesday night was not an exercise in social responsibility. It was a commercial opportunity, no more dignified than Martin Bashir exploiting Michael Jackson. It didn’t put the American people first. It put Dan Rather first. On last night’s shows alone, Rather was softer than ABC’s Barbara Walters was with Robert Blake and CBS’s Troy Roberts was with “preppy killer” Robert Chambers. These men were at worst small-time killers. Saddam Hussein is a mass murderer, a man who has children killed in front of their parents as a torture tactic. Rather called him “President Hussein” and “Mr. President,” and sat cooperatively as he declared that he had won 100 percent of the last election. “100 percent,” Rather repeated, with a tone that sounded like “you don’t say.”
In the days leading up to the Dan’s big “get,” the liberal media seemed to rally around the anchorman, refusing to acknowledge a potentially damaging first impression: The interview was providing aid and comfort to the enemy, as if Edward R. Murrow would have jumped at interviewing Hitler; it would also provide aid and comfort to the antiwar rabble here and abroad, a political boost to the forces arrayed against Saddam’s disarmament.
The objections to Rather’s interview shouldn’t be restricted to that simple formula. Yes, Saddam did use it to project his ridiculous claims on the American people — he loves Allah, freedom, and humanity. Yes, it did probably embolden that strange minority who feels Saddam is a put-upon fall guy for American imperialism. Yes, it could be seen as a contributing factor if President Bush’s push for war takes a punch in the polls. But this interview actually reflects a trend in American journalism at least as old as the Vietnam War: solicitous, respectful treatment of despotic regimes opposing America.
It’s not just the dictators themselves, but their mouthpieces as well. They’re not spin artists for savage regimes. They’re diplomats with gravitas. As with the oily Vladimir Pozners and Alejandro Bendanas before him, Saddam’s stooge/spokesman Tariq Aziz has been quite ubiquitous on American television. Catch him on Good Morning America between the celebrity movie plugs. On February 11, Diane Sawyer interviewed Aziz in a very sympathetic tone, asking if he had a gun in his home to protect his family and sounding relieved when he said “yes, of course.” (All the better to shoot American invaders.) She added this poor-thing question: “Just before you go to sleep at night, how afraid are you?”
The liberal media may suggest this is balance against the gung-ho patriots singing “God Bless America” in D.C., but it’s not balance. It’s a sick imbalance against democratic institutions, the only institutions under which full-throated freedom of journalistic expression thrives. Instead of demonstrating any respect for that notion, the media elite pound and punish the democratically elected, and politely call dictators like Saddam “Mr. President.”
So Dan Rather was merely the lucky one, the one who got the historic two-shot and left the toughness in New York. Rather was right when he insisted that almost any reporter would take that interview offer. But wasn’t softening it a condition for getting it? It should be said that Rather was not selected because he was tough. Obtaining the second interview ought to prove the first interview was a failure, if toughness was the goal.
Reporters love cynically breaking down the way legislation moves or doesn’t move through Congress, and love questioning the sincerity and coherence of White House military-diplomatic moves. Few will make an issue of the sausage making at CBS. Media “reporters” like the Washington Post’s Howard Kurtz left out nagging details like Rather’s help from Ramsey Clark. (Credit AP’s David Bauder for reporting Clark put in a “good word” with Saddam even as he leads a campaign to have George W. Bush impeached.) CBS tried to explain, with the embarrassment it deserved, that it had to submit to Iraqi cameras, Iraqi translators, and wait patiently for Iraqi minders to review their tape and send it along. More comical was Rather’s story that Saddam’s men drove him around Baghdad for two and a half hours before taking him to the interview site. These are clearly not conditions CBS would accept from the president or any other democratically elected leader. Dictators get more respect just because they’re dictators, and it’s the end of sweeps.
When NBC’s Tom Brokaw secured special access to the Bush White House for a primetime special next to its fictional West Wing, it drew the usual hoots from reporters who slammed it as a softball platform for Team Bush. But no one in the media establishment is throwing those brickbats at CBS. They all avoid the obvious contrast: whether Dan is too soft on this lie-a-minute despot, compared to Dan roughing up the pols at home. He took pride in sticking it to Nixon as a White House correspondent. How can we forget anchorman Rather roughing up Bush 41 in 1988, angrily sniping about Iran-Contra: “You’ve made us hypocrites in the face of the world!”
By contrast, Rather gave Saddam five minutes or more devoted to his bizarre proposal for a debate with President Bush. Rather called it “surprising” and “new,” and CBS plugged it relentlessly. But the tape from August 29, 1990 quickly revealed that CBS reported then that Saddam Hussein was offering to debate George Bush or Margaret Thatcher. This interview wasn’t about journalistic integrity, it was about showmanship and self-promotion.
In this show, Rather came up short on any moral showboating, a common tactic in American interviews. He asked dispassionately if Saddam agreed with the September 11 attacks. He also asked if Osama bin Laden has made him irrelevant on the “Arab street.” Nice career move, killing 3,000 Americans? This, from the man who suggested he had found true evil as he welcomed the Republican Congress in 1995 with sentences like “The new Republican majority in Congress took a big step today on its legislative agenda to demolish or damage government aid programs, many of them designed to help children and the poor.” Last night, Newt Gingrich must have sputtered as Saddam just spoke his piece about how he loves peace and humanity without any disobedient rebuttal from Dan.
The media elite ought to come out of this interview at least asking themselves if they would have been as soft a touch as Rather. Not every question was to Saddam’s liking. But a journalist who pictured himself as a toughie would not ask “What’s the most important thing you want the American people to understand at this juncture of history?” That’s a platform, not a question. I would hope another journalist might care more than Rather did about the reaction of his countrymen, especially the parents who lost sons and daughters to this tyrant twelve years ago. I would hope another journalist would vow to hold Saddam accountable before the free press at every broken phony line he gave me as the war proceeds. Rather couldn’t even remember the phony debate line he swallowed last time.
— Tim Graham is director of media analysis at the Media Research Center.