Apr 23 2005

Rather’s Real Bias

He slanted toward power, not the left

When Dan Rather stepped down from the CBS Evening News this week, right-wing media critics ought to have been among those most sorry to see him go. Rather has long served as their “liberal media” bogeyman, personifying the nightly news’ supposed tendency to skewer Republicans and coddle Democrats. But given the central role Rather plays in the conservative critique of the media, the evidence for his alleged liberalism is remarkably flimsy.

If Rather’s unguarded comments over the years indicate any kind of bias, it’s a fondness for power and an unwavering support for American military action. During the 1999 NATO bombing of Yugoslavia, Rather professed support for illegal attacks on that country’s electrical supply (at a National Press Club appearance, 6/25/99): “When U.S. pilots in U.S. aircraft turn off the lights, for me, it’s ‘we.’ And about that I have no apology.” Rather has made similar comments about the Iraq war, acknowledging (CNN’s Larry King Live, 4/14/03) that his reporting would reflect his view that “when my country is at war, I want my country to win.”

But perhaps more distressing was Rather’s explanation of the near-absence of media skepticism prior to the Iraq invasion (at a Harvard University forum on the media, 7/25/04): “Look, when a president of the United States, any president, Republican or Democrat, says these are the facts, there is heavy prejudice, including my own, to give him the benefit of any doubt, and for that I do not apologize.”

These are clearly not the words of the mythical liberal crusader that has been caricatured by conservatives. And you can’t find much evidence on his newscast to support their argument. A FAIR study of the network newscasts in 2001 (Extra!, 5-6/02) found that Rather’s CBS Evening News featured substantially more Republicans than Democrats (76 percent vs. 23 percent). The differences between CBS and the other broadcast networks was slim, belying the notion that any of them have a left-wing bias.

CBS‘s coverage of the Iraq war was similarly skewed against the left: During the first three weeks of combat, Rather’s broadcast had the highest percentage of official U.S. sources (75 percent) and the lowest number (less than 1 percent) of U.S. anti-war voices (Extra!, 5-6/03). Rather famously announced after the September 11 attacks (CBS’s Late Show with David Letterman, 9/17/01) that “wherever [Bush] wants me to line up, just tell me where”; perhaps his most valuable service to Bush was the failure to pose difficult questions or feature dissenting perspectives on the Iraq war.

Rather’s right-wing critics busily catalogue every fond remark Rather has made about Democratic politicians like Bill Clinton, while ignoring or downplaying the very same sycophancy when Republicans are the objects of Rather’s affection–his calling Elizabeth Dole “my fair Liddy” at the 1996 Republican convention (8/14/96), or referring to Ronald Reagan (6/5/04) as “a conduit to connect us to who we had been and who we could be.” On Reagan’s passing (according to the Media Research Center, 6/6/04), Rather tipped his hat and remarked in his June 5 broadcast: “We will think of him always when the West wind blows.”

Much of the discussion of Rather’s retirement focused on the notorious “Memogate” report (60 Minutes, 9/8/04), whose use of dubious documents about George W. Bush’s National Guard career reportedly hastened Rather’s departure (as well as helping Bush keep his own job). But Rather was responsible for similarly questionable reporting that did not attract nearly as much critical attention. Rather’s coverage of the Afghan mujahedeen in the 1980s, for example, reportedly relied on bogus re-enactments to buttress Rather’s gung-ho reporting from the front lines of the resistance to the Soviet invasion (Extra!, 11=12/89).

And on September 11, 2001, Rather helped spread panic in New York and D.C. by irresponsibly reporting false rumors of terrorist incidents (Extra!, 11-12/01). Such lapses brought little condemnation, as they reinforced official propaganda rather than challenging powerful political interests.

Right-wing media critics and pundits have been effective in tagging Rather with the “liberal” label. But the context of Rather’s entire career points to a different conclusion. More often than not, Rather’s reporting followed the journalistic pattern that Rather himself criticized in 1991 (Boston Herald, 9/18/91):

We’re gutless. We’re spineless. There’s no joy in saying this, but beginning sometime in the 1980s, the American press by and large somehow began to operate on the theory that the first order of business was to be popular with the person, or organization, or institution that you cover.

Rather’s retirement would be more of an occasion for regret if he had tried harder to fight that tendency– in himself and in the news business in general.