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.