NEW YORK - Judging from the amount of coverage it has received, it would seem as if the CBS investigation into its flawed report on President Bush's Air National Guard service was the most important media issue facing the country.
Shortly after the report about Mr. Bush's Guard service aired on 60 Minutes Wednesday in September, right-wing commentators and internet bloggers claimed that the documents supporting the CBS report were fraudulent and predictably pointed to the episode as evidence of "liberal media" bias. That the segment was presented by CBS anchor Dan Rather added fuel to the fire, since Mr. Rather has long been targeted by the right for his supposedly liberal political leanings. The right-wing media echo chamber couldn't have written a better script if it tried.
In reality, the CBS review was not able to state conclusively whether the documents were forgeries. The report also found no evidence that "liberal bias" was a factor in the network's journalism. Instead, the report documented a series of misjudgments on the part of several CBS staff members.
The investigation did document serious failures in 60 Minutes Wednesday's efforts to check its source's claims--an endemic problem in the news business. If the investigation had called attention to the issue of credulous journalism, it would have performed a valuable service for the public. But the media discussion of the incident generally has treated it as either an aberration or as an emblem of left-wing media bias.
Lost amid the hours of coverage of the affair was what should have been the central question: Did George W. Bush, in reality, properly fulfill his National Guard requirements?
When the CBS story aired, several mainstream outlets published important scoops about Mr. Bush's years in the National Guard. But because of the focus on the CBS documents and the accompanying accusations of media bias, those stories were quickly dropped by a cowed press corps. Instead of reporters demanding answers from the White House, they turned their attention to typography and font spacing. It wasn't Mr. Bush who had to face the music--it was CBS.
Other reporters have received much less scrutiny and punishment for offenses of far greater magnitude, and with much more significant consequences to society. The New York Times, for example, published numerous allegations about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq that turned out to be false. Those stories did a great deal to sell the White House's bogus case for war.
While the Times has admitted that some of its WMD reporting was "insufficiently qualified or allowed to stand unchallenged," the reporter most responsible for those stories, Judith Miller, was never sanctioned and still continues to report on Iraq.
The lesson of the CBS investigation, then, could very well be this: Journalists can be punished for bad reporting if they have offended the wrong people. If they have merely helped steer the country into war under false pretenses, their careers can continue unimpeded.
Peter Hart is the activism director at FAIR, a media watchdog group. Jim Naureckas is the editor of Extra!, FAIR's magazine.