the network-news stars say ridiculous things about the absence of
liberal media bias, but few are bold enough to boast that they offer
a nightly haven of hard news, with no fluffy tabloid edges. But
CBS anchor Dan Rather and his public-relations brigade are carrying
their arrogance around on a dolly over their contempt for the Gary
Condit-Chandra Levy story.
the New York Post reported that Condit staffers think Rather's
near blackout on the weeknight news is "extraordinarily responsible"
and they suggest he may be rewarded with an exclusive interview
when Condit is ready to talk. CBS News spokewoman Sandy Genelius
was taking that scoop to the hole with elbows flying. "It's
almost too absurd to merit comment, but it's not surprising that
news organizations that have covered this story to tabloid excess
are eager to impugn others who have shown more restraint."
Genelius didn't consider before condemning other news outlets that
within CBS, only Rather's pretending he's asleep. The Early Show
keeps up with Condit details, and so does the Evening News
on the weekends when Dan's not the sheriff.
This will make
for snippier anti-Rather remarks in the future. Most of them we'll
never hear. But a few years ago, when Rather was pushing his Hard-News
Dan routine and the critics were (correctly) identifying ratings-leading
NBC as "news lite," Tom Brokaw (correctly) made some hilarious
remarks about how Rather's idea of hard news consists of wrapping
himself around a telephone pole in a hurricane.
a Condit exclusive ruin the whole wouldn't-stoop-that-low routine?
Was the whole anti-tabloid thing just a tactic to land the central
1993, just days after a remarkably unctuous interview with Hillary
Rodham Clinton, Dan Rather gave a speech complaining that reporters
have learned a new commercial formula: "Do powder puff, not
probing interviews. Stay away from controversial subjects. Kiss
ass, move with the mass and for heaven and ratings' sake don't make
anybody mad — certainly not anybody you're covering, and especially
not the Mayor, the Governor, the Senator, the President or the Vice-President
or anybody in a position of power. Make nice, not news." That
is exactly Rather's formula with Gary Condit. He'd rather make nice
than make news.
wasn't always this distracted when members of Congress were the
targets of sex-scandal stories. CBS's promos in June of 1995 made
the case that Sen. Bob Packwood should not be allowed to serve:
"If Senator Bob Packwood really did what all those women
say he did, it probably would have cost him his job long ago in
corporate America. So why not in Washington?" Clinton adviser
Mandy Grunwald: "You not only keep your job, you become the
most powerful chairman of the most powerful committee in the United
States Senate." Announcer: "Is Packwood too powerful
to punish? A touchy subject on Eye on America, tomorrow on the
CBS Evening News."
didn't use his strictest standard of evidence before pushing Packwood
toward the door — notice the "if Packwood did what they said"
disclaimer. CBS no doubt felt proud that they were striking a blow
for women, sending a message to sex-addled solons that there would
be watchdogs on their tail. But that was then and this is now.
In his only
story, Rather highlighted the inappropriate focus on Condit: "You
may want to keep in mind that the case remains officially a missing
person case. No crime has been established. No one has been accused
by law men of anything, much less formerly charged. No one's been
charged with breaking any law."
have honored Rather's near-blackout as if he was suddenly turning
CBS into an oasis of non-commercial integrity. That would make a
modicum of sense if he had any consistency. Politically, he's had
one standard for Condit and Bill Clinton, and another for Packwood,
Clarence Thomas, John Tower, and so on. Journalistically, Rather's
introduced some rather randy sex stories as the anchor of 48
Hours. Look back just a few months back to April 5 for an hour-long
focus on sex. One segment was headlined in Nexis as "Not the
Cleavers: Tammy Robinson, mother of three, displays nude pictures
of herself on the Internet for anybody to see." From there,
CBS interviewed Playboy boss Hugh Hefner at his mansion, and followed
up with a segment on spouse-swapping sex clubs. (It first aired
on May 20, 2000). On April 1, 1999, 48 Hours also titillated
viewers with segments on lucrative Internet porn, profiling tycoon
Seth Warshavsky and online skin sensation Danni Ashe.
against tabloidism is at bottom not a socially conservative revulsion
against illicit sex. Otherwise, he'd be appalled by Condit. Rather's
cheerleaders are hailing a revolt against commercialism, against
chasing the Nielsens for the Benjamins, that desire by many journalists
to stick it to the shareholders and the CEOs and the ad-buyers from
Red Lobster and be Jim Lehrer for a day.
may have another reason: He may be revolting against the Condit
story because he's a convert to Washington Post columnist
Richard Cohen's idea of how gentlemen behave. In the Cohen school,
gentlemen are allowed to cheat on their wives. What gentlemen do
not do is break the code of honor among adulterers. This code of
honor was only applied to Democrats, to people who apparently weren't
hypocrites in adultery, since they really weren't enthusiasts for
"family values" in the first place.
didn't like his own little turn in the hot seat. At the Republican
convention in Houston in 1992, Tom Sherwood, a reporter for Washington's
local NBC affiliate WRC-TV, turned the tables on Rather by asking
him if he ever committed adultery. A squirming Rather tried to evade
the question by asking if others were so inconvenienced: "You've
been asking this to Tom Brokaw, have you?" (Sherwood asked
his own network's Tim Russert, who quickly said no with a smile.)
Then Rather asked Sherwood if he'd ever had an affair. Sherwood
assured him "I'm going to answer the question at the end of
my story." As he walked away, Rather turned on his robotic
anchorman persona, saying cryptically, "Well, thank you very
much. Pleased to see you." This would not be an answer Rather
would have found acceptable for Tower or Thomas or Tailhook airmen.
Rather wanted his audience to see these targets and think "guilty,
The new Dan
Rather could be seen in his exclusive post-impeachment interview
with Bill Clinton, a sponge bath that could foreshadow how Rather
would approach a Condit exclusive. Rather's idea of probing toughness
was this: "Mr. President, you know Americans like to know that
the First Family is okay, that they're doing alright. Given the
year plus what you and our First Family have been through, tell
us what you can about how the three of you are doing."
Rather they are "doing reasonably well" since "we
do love each other very much."
his eyes or giggling, Rather then inquired: "How about yourself?
We're here in a room with pictures of Lincoln, Washington, Continental
Congress. When you look back over this year plus, what's the moral
of it? Does it have a moral?" Rather wanted the audience chanting
"the poor man, the poor man, the poor man."
It's no mystery
why Clinton gave Rather the exclusive, and it would be no mystery
if Condit did the same. But does that make CBS look good? Would
anyone in TV news have looked good by soft-pedaling Packwood and
then getting the exclusive?