Mar 2 2005

Rather’s Retirement and ‘Liberal Bias’

On March 9, Dan Rather will step down after 24 years as anchor of the CBS Evening News. Media retrospectives of Rather’s career will likely refer to the long-running right-wing critique of Rather’s supposed “liberalism.” But the notion that Rather has used his CBS platform to disseminate left-wing propaganda over the last two decades does not hold up to scrutiny.

If Rather can be accused of anything, it’s the same bias one can see throughout the mainstream media: an unwillingness to challenge official power and policy. And it’s a bias that Rather has admitted to embracing; speaking at a Harvard forum on the media (7/25/04), Rather offered no apologies for uncritical reporting on Iraq’s supposed weapons of mass destruction:

“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.”

Off to War

Rather has openly advocated for various U.S. military actions. In a speech at the National Press Club (6/25/99), he had this to say about the bombing of Yugoslavia:

“When U.S. pilots in U.S. aircraft turn off the lights [by bombing civilian electrical stations], for me, it’s ‘we.’ And about that I have no apology.” (Civilian infrastructure, of course, is protected by the Geneva Accords, and deliberately attacking it is a war crime.) Elaborating further on his approach to war reporting, Rather said, “I’m an American, and I’m an American reporter. And yes, when there’s combat involving Americans, you can criticize me if you must, damn me if you must, but I’m always pulling for us to win.”

That position was unchanged a few years later (CNN, 4/14/03):

“Look, I’m an American. I never tried to kid anybody that I’m some internationalist or something. And when my country is at war, I want my country to win, whatever the definition of ‘win’ may be. Now, I can’t and don’t argue that that is coverage without a prejudice. About that I am prejudiced.”

After the September 11 attacks, Rather made an appearance on CBS‘s Late Show with David Letterman (9/17/01) and announced his willingness to do more than just root from the sidelines: “George Bush is the president. He makes the decisions, and, you know, it’s just one American, wherever he wants me to line up, just tell me where. And he’ll make the call.” Rather issued a similar call on the show Entertainment Tonight (10/2/01), according to a transcript from the conservative Media Research Center (10/3/01): “If he needs me in uniform, tell me when and where– I’m there.”

Paying Tribute

When they make their case against Rather, conservative critics are fond of pointing out that he has made flattering statements about Democratic politicians like Bill Clinton. But that would seem to have less to do with Rather’s partisanship than with his fondness for power. After Ronald Reagan’s death (CBS Evening News, 6/5/04), Rather recalled that Reagan “was the great communicator, yes. But he was also a master at communicating greatness. He understood that, as he once put it, ‘History is a ribbon always unfurling,’ and managed to convey his vision in terms both simple and poetic. And so he was able to act as a conduit to connect us to who we had been and who we could be.”

According to the Media Research Center (6/6/04), Rather appeared choked up during a June 5 broadcast dedicated to Reagan, during which he said, “May we share his optimism and may his steed hold steady as he completes his journey. We will think of him always when the West wind blows.”

It wasn’t just Reagan; during the 1996 Republican National Convention, Rather fawned over Elizabeth Dole’s “tremendous” performance (8/14/96), even dubbing her “my fair Liddy.”

And Rather’s alleged fondness for liberalism certainly doesn’t run very deep: During the 1992 Democratic National Convention (7/13/92), Rather had this to say about former presidential candidate and civil rights activist Jesse Jackson: “There have always been two Jesse Jacksons. There’s Jesse the radical, who preaches rage and black separatism. That Jesse has always angered whites. And there’s Jesse the self-promoter, who preaches desegregation and compromise.” Take your pick: Jackson’s either a radical black separatist or a “self-promoter.”

By the Numbers

If Rather were indeed liberal– or just more liberal than his network competitors– one would think that the CBS Evening News would include more critical perspectives in its newscast, particularly during a Republican administration. But FAIR’s study of guests and sources appearing during coverage of the Iraq war (3/20/03-4/9/03) actually found that Rather’s broadcast had the highest percentage of official U.S. sources (75 percent) and the lowest number (less than one percent) of U.S. anti-war voices (Extra!, 5-6/03).

A FAIR study of all the network news broadcasts in 2001 (Extra!, 5-6/02) found that CBS Evening News had the most Republicans and the fewest Democrats (76 percent vs. 23 percent). The difference between CBS and the other networks was slim, but such analysis belies the notion that Rather’s network– or any of the others– have a left bias.


It’s a good bet that Rather’s retirement will draw significant attention to the so-called “Rathergate” controversy– the 60 Minutes report (9/8/04) on George W. Bush’s National Guard service that relied on dubious documents. But instead of revealing partisanship in Rather’s work, the episode falls into a pattern of sloppiness on Rather’s part in his eagerness for certain stories– including stories that benefit Republican administrations.

One early controversy remains relatively obscure: Rather’s fawning coverage of the Afghan mujahadeen in the 1980s (Extra!, 11-12/89). A series of articles in 1989 in the New York Post alleged that Rather’s gung-ho reporting from the front lines of the anti-Soviet mujahadeen was supplemented by phony re-enactments of rebel assaults. Some scenes were reportedly filmed in Pakistan, and facts were distorted– on one broadcast (8/11/87), for example, Rather claimed to report the “the biggest one-day defeat for Soviet forces since World War II,” when in reality the battle was relatively small and didn’t involve Soviet forces.

Rather and CBS relied on two partisan freelancers to assist its coverage of Afghanistan: Kurt Lohbeck, who set up news conferences for mujahadeen leaders and testified before Congress to request additional aid for the Afghan rebels, and Mike Hoover, a cameraman sympathetic to the rebels who had been suspected of faking scenes in some of his earlier work– allegations that CBS officials were aware of while they were working with him.

There are more recent examples of Rather’s erroneous reporting. On September 11, 2001, Rather went to great lengths to report on the terrorist attacks on United States soil– including some that never happened (Extra!, 11-12/01). “Let me pause and say that a car bomb has exploded outside the State Department in Washington,” Rather told CBS viewers. He repeated: “Now a car bomb has exploded outside the State Department in Washington. No further details available on that.” He reported this “car bomb explosion” as fact at least three more times before finally adding a qualifier.

This gaffe did not prevent Rather from reporting another “scoop” later that evening: Citing reports from the local CBS affiliate, Rather claimed that “two people have been arrested with explosives under the George Washington Bridge…. As this report– now, whether it was connected with the events of the day, we do not know. But an interesting report.”

Later, he prefaced the story with “It may not be over yet,” and added that “Authorities say there were enough explosives in the truck to bring down the bridge.” As with the State Department car-bombing, Rather had to backtrack on this story as well: “Further checking on that story [reveals] that other law enforcement officials in New York said they knew nothing about it…. We’ll have to put that in a long line of things that’s under the, ‘Well, we’re skeptical now.’ Maybe it’s true and maybe it isn’t.”

Rather accompanied the backtracking with another self-justification: “I repeat for emphasis, we’d rather be last than be wrong, but in reporting of this kind, we’re bound to make some mistakes.” Surely reporters should have a better defense for airing uncorroborated allegations than that.

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 pattern that Rather himself criticized in an early-’90s interview (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.