Dan Rather’s initial, furious street-side defense of an amateurish forgery–smug, huffy, self-righteous–brings to mind one of those bad movies about the Paris barricades, especially the grainy, black-and-white shots of powdered and wigged aristocrats on their way to the Guillotine, yelling out of their carriages at pitchfork-carrying peasants.
Worse than being duped, worse than cobbling together a highly politicized hit-piece during a war and in the waning days of an election, worse than the shady nature of the “unimpeachable” sources and the likely sordid origins of the story, and worse even than the pathetic nature of CBS’s “expert” witnesses–worse than all that was Rather’s ten-day denial of reality, culminating in the surreal half-admission that the phony documents could not be verified as accurate. That’s the equivalent of saying that a corpse cannot be proven to be alive.
Commentators have envisioned Rather’s fall as symbolic of a “paradigm shift” and the “end of the era”–an event that has crystallized the much larger and ongoing demise of the old establishment media. Allegories from the French Revolution and the emperor without any clothes to the curtain scene in The Wizard of Oz have been evoked to illustrate Rather’s dilemma and the hypocrisy of all that went before. We have come a long way since the 1960s: The once-revolutionary pigs taking over the manor are now bloated and strutting on two legs as they feast on silver inside the farmhouse.
First CBS went into denial; then it tried to smear its critics; next it emulated the Nixonian two-step; and finally it stonewalled altogether, hoping that the 24-hour news buzz would fade before it ultimately did. Meanwhile, more and more Americans yawn and have already switched the channel to cable news. We keep waiting for Mike Wallace on Sunday’s 60 Minutes to stare down Dan Rather on the set of Tuesday’s 60 Minutes, sticking his mike in Dan’s face, springing on him a long list of his previously unknown sins, capped off with the zoom shot on a fidgety, sweating Rather, as the tick, tick, tick fades into a primetime commercial.
The Big Three may deride the newsreaders at Fox as blond bimbos, but millions of Americans learned long ago that there are probably more liberals on Fox than conservatives on PBS, NPR, CBS, ABC, and NBC combined–and the former are honest about politics in a way the latter are not.
The New York Times talks about standards and “journalistic integrity,” but given its recent public record no one was surprised by the existence of a Jayson Blair, or by the fact that under Howell Raines a once-grand paper became a caricature of 19th-century yellow journalism, with possibly fewer daily readers than Matt Drudge. Elites may lament that someone who did not go to the Columbia School of Journalism can affect more readers than the Times, but instead of the usual aristocratic snarls they should ask themselves how and why that came about–and why, for example, watching a PBS documentary by Bill Moyers or listening to Garrison Keillor on NPR is now to endure a publicly subsidized extension of their silly rants at lectures and in op-eds.
It has taken a lot to end the credibility of the liberal dynasty, inasmuch as there were many prior provocations–Peter Arnett airing a blatantly dishonest 1998 mythodrama on CNN about Americans using Sarin gas in Laos; Dan Rather giving a flawed 1988 account of American grotesqueries in Vietnam (The Wall Within), replete with phony veterans spinning lies about horrific war crimes. But then we have not quite seen anything like the shamelessness of airing forged documents backed by unhinged witnesses and verified by suspect “experts”–all in a time of war and with the intent of smearing a sitting conservative president.
True, given his history and influence, Dan Rather was the most logical person to pull all that off–and so now he is the right person to take the collective fall for the sins of his brethren. How strange that bloggers are far more representative of democratic culture than Rather; that dittoheads are grassroots in a way that NPR is not; and that cable news is more honest in its politicking than Peter Jennings. No wonder CBS has gone from being controversial to annoying, and soon irrelevant–the ultimate sin given the corporate bottom line.
Hypocrisy and aristocratic smugness are drawing the ancient regime to its death. Rather’s now-ossified generation came of age in the heady Vietnam era, on the apparent premise that Main Street, USA, and the Kiwanis had given us Vietnam, Watergate, racism, and the other isms and phobias–and that only hip, swashbuckling 60s-types could tell the American people the “truth” about what the “establishment” was up to.
Ever so incrementally along this inevitable road to Rathergate, John Kerry’s searing Cambodia-patrol story, and Kitty Kelley’s Reagan and Bush pseudographies, many Americans began to worry about the ends-justifying-the-means culture of the sanctimonious Left. The counterculture was defended on the dubious premise that the activists needed to fight fire with fire as they exposed everything from Nixon’s lies to the embarrassing Pentagon Papers.
But in the process there also began a professional devolution, as questionable legal and ethical methods were excused in the name of the greater good. We got the Ellsberg pilfered documents, the blank check of “unnamed sources,” trips to Hanoi and Paris to meet the enemy, Peter Arnett broadcasting gloom and doom live from Baghdad–all culminating in the two-bit forgeries used for the “higher” cause of unseating George Bush. Daniel Ellsberg, Jane Fonda, and CBS may have done things that were legally wrong (like the latter’s promulgating fraudulent government documents to defame a government official), but in postmodern logic they were morally “right” given their superior knowledge, character, and progressive intentions.
We do not expect any more citations of sources in Bob Woodward’s “inside” history, even when he uncovers thought processes buried deep inside someone’s brain; after all, he discovered Deep Throat and broke Watergate. The list of plagiarist historians is long and growing, yet mitigating circumstances are advanced since such mendacity is useful in exposing the bad gun and bomb lobbies or praising the good Kennedys.
Wasn’t it wrong that Jimmy Carter campaigned for a Peace Prize by venomous criticism of his country on the eve of war–and was praised for it by the Nobel committee, which gave him the medal at that precise time? No problem, he builds houses for the poor and loves the U.N. Who cares that Teresa Heinz-Kerry and John Edwards rant on about those who are “un-American”? They, of all people, can’t be employing McCarthyesque invective, can they?
But the regime is crumbling on campuses as well. Too many university professors in the humanities dropped long ago their allegiance to the disinterested search for truth, or to teaching students facts and methods. How could one be so constrained and parochial when a war was raging on, and millions of youth needed to be prepared as ideological warriors in the struggle to remake our culture? Meanwhile, teaching loads decreased, annual tuition soared higher than the rate of inflation, and the baccalaureate no longer reflected much erudition. Surely, progressive academics, of all people, would not stand by while their curriculum was politicized, free speech suppressed, their part-time lecturers systematically exploited, their working-class students priced out of the market, and their research tainted with bias?
The U.N. also seems to be going the way of CBS. Only a little over a quarter of our citizenry feels that the organization reflects American values. Kofi Annan was blind to the greatest financial scandal of our time, one that contributed to the deaths of thousands in Iraq and enriched cronies, including perhaps his own son. He survives only because a biased media has judged that his progressivism warrants shielding him from the type of scrutiny afforded Halliburton.
Under Mr. Annan, the U.N. won’t say a word about Tibet or do anything about the thousands butchered in Africa–how can it when murdering states such as Cuba, Algeria, and Iran are on its committees overseeing human rights? Kofi Annan’s U.N. has lost its ideals, become counterfeit, and thus is now mostly irrelevant.
Those who profess to be Democrats are reaching historically low numbers. Many prominent Democrats are hypocrites: Feminists Ted Kennedy and Bill Clinton were uncouth womanizers; the principled war critic Senator Byrd cut his teeth in the Klan; and the self-proclaimed moralists Senators Harkin and Kennedy have both been caught in postmodern problems with the truth. Being rich and a lawyer helps too. Most prominent Democrats and their enablers are either lawyers or multimillionaires, and now often both. Running a hardware store may explain your Republicanism; inheriting the profits from a chain of 1,000 hardware franchises will likely make you a new Democrat.
If we wonder why CBS is in trouble, why no one trusts the universities or the U.N., or why the Democrats may soon lose the Senate, the House, the presidency, and the Supreme Court, the answer has a lot to do with arrogant hypocrisy–the idea that how one lives need have nothing to do with what one professes, that idealistic rhetoric can provide psychological cover for privilege and preference, and that rules need not apply for those self-proclaimed as smarter and nicer than the rest of us. But none of us–none–get a pass simply because we claim that we are more moral, educated, or sophisticated than most.
In the meantime, as this unclean tale slowly reaches it end–and it will–CBS soon may have to decide between having Dan Rather and having an audience. Dan Rather, in his abject non-professionalism and in his overweening arrogance, has become the symbol of all that has gone so terribly wrong with our once-romantic but now confused, compromised, and aging generation of change. Such are the wages for those who destroy timeless rules and proven protocols for short-term expediency and thus find no sanctuary in their own hour of need.
Mr. Rather would do well to remember Leo Amery’s famous evocation of Cromwell, when he once bade Neville Chamberlain to get out:
“You have sat too long here for any good you have been doing. Depart, I say, and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go.”
So, Dan, go, and let us have done with you–in the name of God, go now.
–Victor Davis Hanson is a visiting professor for the month of September and a fellow of Hillsdale College.