Politics & Policy

The Corner

Our Tarnished Media

Dan Rather, in a recent interview, says he is worried about the political culture and the bitter divisions within it. I wonder whether he has considered his own unique personal contribution to the bitterness and hysteria of our political discourse.

Donald Trump would have a great deal less credibility dismissing every reality he does not like as “Fake news!” if Dan Rather had not infamously attempted to peddle some actual fake news for the transparent purpose of trying to hurt the presidential campaign of George W. Bush. Rather’s attempt to use forged documents to push a fake story about a Republican candidate for political purposes did more than any other single episode of the past 20 years to undermine the credibility of the mainstream media.

That happened during the early days of blogging and online journalism, and it contributed deeply to the now-pervasive sense on the right that the media is not just sloppy and biased but an actual political enemy acting with malice aforethought. (Which it sometimes is, but less often than conservative populists think.) CBS News executive Jonathan Klein dismissed criticism of the Rather story as the work of “a guy sitting in his living room in his pajamas,” a shallow sneer that lives on ironically in the name of PJ Media.

CBS News, it should be noted, later acknowledged that the Rather story failed to live up to its editorial standards and apologized for it, but to this day has never publicly acknowledged that it was a political hit based on a forgery — something a little bit worse than a hoax, in reality. It wasn’t sloppy journalism: It was naked partisan political activism.

I am a little softer on the mainstream media than most conservatives are, possibly because I do not watch very much television news. On the occasions when I bother to look at it, I roll my eyes at the New York Times editorial page — a festival of witless hackery that ought to embarrass the rest of the New York Times — but I find a great deal of value in its news pages, along with those of the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, and many other publications, including many of those that do have some bias problems. If I read something discomfiting in the New York Times, I look into it rather than just dismissing it out-of-hand because of the source.

But it wasn’t Rush Limbaugh, Roger Ailes, or those guys in their pajamas who ruined the reputation of CBS News — CBS News did that, and tarnished a great deal of the rest of the media in the bargain. It was not bloggers and the right-wing rage-monkeys of Facebook, excitable as they may be, who split the mainstream media and American conservatives into hostile political factions. The mainstream media did that, and Dan Rather was an enormously important part of that, both because of substance of what he did and the timing of it.

There are a number of underappreciated factors that go into making up a healthy democratic political culture: Trust, cooperation, and institutions are among the most important of them. Politically, we cooperate even when we compete, trying to keep our political competition within our national norms and conduct contests in a way that honors the best of our tradition rather than corroding it. (At our best, anyway.) And we rely on institutions to help us do that: the media to inform us about what is actually going on in the world, the American Bar Association to help us judge judicial candidates, the Congressional Budget Office to help us understand the fiscal effects of legislation, etc. None of that works without trust. And who really trusts the media, the American Bar Association, or the Congressional Budget Office? The level of distrust in those institutions (particularly among conservatives) may be unwarranted given the scale of their transgressions against our trust, but that distrust is not entirely unwarranted, either.

Dan Rather is at the moment hawking a book on patriotism, titled What Unites Us. Necessarily, he also must consider what divides us — and he ought to meditate on his own contributions to that.

Most Popular

Law & the Courts

Obstruction Confusions

In his Lawfare critique of one of my several columns about the purported obstruction case against President Trump, Gabriel Schoenfeld loses me — as I suspect he will lose others — when he says of himself, “I do not think I am Trump-deranged.” Gabe graciously expresses fondness for me, and the feeling is ... Read More
Politics & Policy

Students’ Anti-Gun Views

Are children innocents or are they leaders? Are teenagers fully autonomous decision-makers, or are they lumps of mental clay, still being molded by unfolding brain development? The Left seems to have a particularly hard time deciding these days. Take, for example, the high-school students from Parkland, ... Read More
PC Culture

Kill Chic

We live in a society in which gratuitous violence is the trademark of video games, movies, and popular music. Kill this, shoot that in repugnant detail becomes a race to the visual and spoken bottom. We have gone from Sam Peckinpah’s realistic portrayal of violent death to a gory ritual of metal ripping ... Read More

Romney Is a Misfit for America

Mitt’s back. The former governor of Massachusetts and occasional native son of Michigan has a new persona: Mr. Utah. He’s going to bring Utah conservatism to the whole Republican party and to the country at large. Wholesome, efficient, industrious, faithful. “Utah has a lot to teach the politicians in ... Read More
Law & the Courts

What the Second Amendment Means Today

The horrifying school massacre in Parkland, Fla., has prompted another national debate about guns. Unfortunately, it seems that these conversations are never terribly constructive — they are too often dominated by screeching extremists on both sides of the aisle and armchair pundits who offer sweeping opinions ... Read More

Fire the FBI Chief

American government is supposed to look and sound like George Washington. What it actually looks and sounds like is Henry Hill from Goodfellas: bad suit, hand out, intoning the eternal mantra: “F*** you, pay me.” American government mostly works by interposition, standing between us, the free people at ... Read More
Film & TV

Black Panther’s Circle of Hype

The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) first infantilizes its audience, then banalizes it, and, finally, controls it through marketing. This commercial strategy, geared toward adolescents of all ages, resembles the Democratic party’s political manipulation of black Americans, targeting that audience through its ... Read More