September 13, 2004,
Last Friday Richard Starr made a prediction about the National Guard memos: CBS would almost certainly admit that they were forgeries. That sure seemed right to me at the time. But instead, CBS said it was standing by its story and, despite reports, would not conduct an internal investigation. On hearing this news, Jim Geraghty of NRO's Kerry Spot spoke for me when he sputtered, "I am stunned." The stunning truth, as Mark Steyn put it was that "Big Media are trashing their reputations in service to a man who can never win." I thought I agreed with that too. But now I'm not so sure.
Why were we so wrong? Why did Dan Rather and CBS News, against all expectations, impeach their own credibility to defend the authenticity of memos that are almost certainly forgeries? The obvious answer is that they did it to save the faltering Kerry campaign from a final and decisive blow. If CBS were to admit that the documents were forgeries, it would have no grounds for protecting its sources. In fact, CBS would have a positive obligation to do everything in its power to expose the malefactors behind the forgeries. If the trail led back to the Kerry campaign, president Bush's reelection would be assured. Dan Rather has been at pains to derogate those who are interested in where the documents came from. This sounds suspiciously like Rather is concerned about what a revelation of his sources might mean. Certainly, if Rather personally received the forgeries from a Kerry operative, it would be a disaster for Rather. That alone might seem to be sufficient to explain CBS's refusal to admit its error. (It now appears that CBS News may well have received the documents from a partisan and highly questionable source.)
SUPPLY AND DEMANDAnd even if the trail leading back to the forgers does not pass through the Kerry camp, an admission by CBS that the documents are bogus would be a huge embarrassment for the senator's campaign, which has so aggressively seized upon the story to attack the president. It would also be a fiasco for Dan Rather and CBS, whose credulity on a story harmful to the president would be exposed, and pointedly contrasted to their treatment of the Swift-boat veterans.
But surely it would have been better for Rather and CBS to cut their losses and admit their error. Yes, they would have taken a hit, but they would also have won kudos for honesty and professionalism. Americans are forgiving of those who admit error. By standing behind a story that is so obviously flawed, Rather and CBS News are setting themselves up to become laughing stocks. That is why the reasonable assumption I and many other folks made was that CBS would attempt to salvage its reputation by repudiating the memos. And that is why many now assume Dan Rather and CBS News have sacrificed their reputations in order to protect the Kerry campaign.
But can devotion to John Kerry really explain so flagrant a violation of CBS's apparent best interests? There must be another reason the network surprised us all. It is doubtful it would consciously take a course that would place its audience share and financial position at significant risk. If Dan Rather himself had taken forged documents from a Kerry campaign operative, that might explain why he personally was willing to stand by a shaky story. But it would not account for the willingness of CBS to back him up. No doubt, Rather and the members of the news division at CBS strongly favor John Kerry's bid for the presidency. But I do not believe they would have allowed themselves to be put in this position solely to save Kerry. Yes, the determination to rescue John Kerry is behind the decision to defend the documents. But it is not so much Dan Rather's politics at work here as it is the politics of the CBS audience.
THE MAINSTREAM MOVES LEFTSomething important seems to be happening to the media something those of us who complain about liberal media bias may have missed up to now. Although there is a major and ever growing alternative media composed of talk radio, opinion journals, Internet news sites, blogs, and Fox News, the "mainstream media" still dominates. In terms of sheer numbers, the network newscasts still out-pull cable news channels by considerable margins. And Internet sites and blogs still attract a relatively small (if growing and disproportionately influential) audience. Because of its prestige and because it's just plain bigger the mainstream media is, well, "mainstream," while the rest are just "alternative."
Although all of this is still true, we may well be seeing the initial signs of a profound realignment of the media along more strictly and openly partisan lines. The mainstream media as a whole may be larger than the alternative outlets, but the mainstream audience itself is segmented. Looking at the CBS News audience alone, we are probably talking about the most self-consciously liberal part of the network audience pie. True, nowadays all the network newscasts are liberal. But CBS has had that reputation longer than the rest. Gradually, with the exit of moderates and conservatives to other networks and the alternative media, CBS's audience is probably now composed largely of liberal Democrats. In the middle of the most divisive presidential election in years, we have to assume that the CBS audience itself is far more interested in helping John Kerry than in getting to the bottom of the forgery issue. So as the country increasingly divides into two media camps, the "mainstream media" is becoming more openly partisan. And it's the audience that's driving this not only, or even primarily, the journalists, liberal though journalists may be.
No matter how much the media scene has changed, many of us carry an image in our minds of the old CBS News. In the days when the country had only three network newscasts to watch, CBS was the most prestigious of all. Back then, CBS News would certainly have repudiated the forgeries (in the unlikely event that they would have fallen for them in the first place). Had they not repudiated the documents, CBS News would have risked the loss, along with its reputation for fairness, of half or more of its audience. But nowadays, toughing it out on behalf of John Kerry is only likely to reinforce audience loyalty among CBS's partisan viewers. The CBS audience might find its enthusiasm for Dan Rather dampened considerably if an admission from Rather ended up bringing down their candidate.
We conservatives can talk all we want about CBS putting its credibility at risk. But the truth is, we ceased to take the word of Dan Rather or CBS a long time ago. What's more, CBS knows this. And that is why they're sticking with their story. In other words, the exit of increasing numbers of conservatives and moderates from the mainstream-media audience is pushing mainstream outlets to the left.
I, for one, am a disappointed old-time loyalist of CBS News and the New York Times. Somewhere deep in my trusting heart, I want to believe that some journalistically responsible "grown up" at the old media bastions is going to read all these revelations of bias and set things right. In my dreams, chastened by their betrayal of journalistic standards, mainstream outlets would start hiring young reporters who cut their teeth at conservative, and not just liberal, publications, and will thus gradually recreate the balanced, fair-minded, and trustworthy news institutions of old.
UNOFFICIAL SPOKESMANBut now I see why this can't happen. The divisions in the country are too strong. What's more, the cycle of division is self-reinforcing. First came the of the movements of the 60s. Then the media was captured by the Left. Then the conservatives started to exit, building up alternative outlets as they went. As the fundamental cultural and political issues dividing the country sharpened, more and more people started flooding to the alternative media. This self-selection process began to turn the mainstream audience into a self-consciously liberal audience. So even as complaints about liberal media bias escalated, the mainstream media was bound to become more liberal, not less liberal because that's what was happening to its audience. What all this means is that, given its audience, CBS News is no longer concerned about preserving it reputation for fairness. On the contrary, CBS now wants and needs to preserve its reputation for liberalism.
We are still in transition. Mainstream (i.e., liberal) outlets are still bigger. That means they still get more attention from voters in the middle. The mainstream media cannot entirely ignore accusations of bias, and still needs to maintain a veneer of neutrality and professionalism. Up to now, the media's liberalism was most unambiguously evident on social issues. Political coverage was the one place where real efforts at balance were made. But in this election, we have seen a major shift toward bias even in political coverage. The mainstream media are now working for the Democratic party with all the enthusiasm of Wendy's "unofficial spokesman." In reality, of course, Wendy's unofficial spokesman is their most official and important representative. The mainstream media's relationship to the Democratic party is now about the same.
Does all of this mean that stories about media bias are futile, or even counterproductive? Not really. It simply means that it's too late for the mainstream media to reform itself. The exit of doubters is now so large that the mainstream outlets are trapped by the remaining and largely liberal audience into ever more obvious leftist partisanship. Put that together with the actual left-leaning political views of reporters, and there will obviously be no change.
The purpose of media-bias stories is now different than it once was. The goal is no longer to reform the mainstream media, but to expose it for the partisan political player it is, so as to pull as many doubters as possible into alternative outlets. Is this good for the country? I doubt it. It would be far better to have a fair and trusted mainstream media to present the news, flanked by thoughtful journals of opinion on both sides of the political spectrum. But sadly, that is not where we are.