Issue Date: February 4, 2005
The fall of Dan Rather and Jon Stewart's rising star
By RAYMOND A. SCHROTH
Ohh, brothers. They love to see a big man fall.
Those were the words of Jesuit Fr. Martin Neylon, our master of novices in the 1950s, later a missionary bishop, in one of those daily conferences preparing us for the pitfalls along the way as we struggled to live the Jesuit life.
He had in mind the tendency of men, even in religious orders, to carp about authorities, such as college presidents, and then to rejoice when the big guy makes a big mistake and tumbles.
Of course some authorities, even Jesuit ones, make big mistakes and should take the consequences, but I couldnt help thinking of Martys words when the Richard J. Thornburgh-Louis Boccardi report on CBS News 60 Minutes Wednesday snafu in running the inadequately documented story on George Bushs National Guard service appeared in January. Four CBS heads rolled.
But somehow Dan Rather remained standing, and his critics, who created their own Web site, Rathergate.com, clamored for Rathers head as well.
Rather is not blameless. He had been covering the Republican Convention and chasing hurricanes in Florida when the story was being stitched together, but after the Sept. 8 60 Minutes broadcast was immediately criticized, he used his daily program, CBS Evening News, where he is managing editor, to support the 60 Minutes report. He should have become a self-doubter, done original reporting, and answered the question both 60 Minutes and the investigating panel failed to answer: Where did those questionable documents really come from?
Rather is hated not so much for what he is but for what his enemies imagine he represents. After all, CBS is the network that exposed Sen. Joe McCarthys phony red scare, gave in-depth coverage to Watergate, allowed Walter Cronkite to come out against the Vietnam War, and blew the whistle on torture in Abu Ghraib. Though too young to be one of the original Murrows Boys, who forged an all-star news team during World War II, Rather sees himself in their tradition. Thus the trademark trench coat and his lust to fly to battlefields and into hurricanes.
Tina Brown in the Jan. 13 Washington Post calls Rather an empty trench coat, and Tim Goodman in the San Francisco Chronicle reminds us that The New York Times faced its Jayson Blair plagiarism scandal by firing its top men. But NPR analyst and CBS veteran Daniel Schorr says Rathers role was minimal. Rather defended the staff because he was sticking with the troops, Schorr said. Ultimately Rathers punishment is a battered reputation. The first paragraph of his obituary will include the dark days of January 2005.
Meanwhile, another story of worse corruption get less attention because the offender is less famous and because it embarrasses the Bush administration, which secretly paid out $240,000 to Armstrong Williams, a prominent black columnist and TV and radio personality, to shill for the administrations No Child Left Behind education policy and to make time for Republican administration spokesmen on his show.
Williams defends himself on the grounds that not being elite, hes not up to snuff on journalism ethics. Yet as Frank Rich disclosed in the Jan. 16 New York Times, Williams brought Dick Cheney on his show in 2003 to stick up for Halliburton and attack the nonobjective press for its critical coverage of his old company.
As this is written, the scuttlebutt is that CBS may jettison the low-rated 60 Minutes Wednesday and Rather with it. The plan is to restore CBS credibility by replacing Rathers Evening News with a revolutionary, youth-oriented format.
If I were writing skits for Saturday Night Live, Id do one where CBS replaces Dan Rather with Jon Stewart, the fake anchor on Comedy Centrals fake late night news, The Daily Show. But CBS chairman Leslie Moonves has beat me to it. He actually is considering Stewart! As if the regular news isnt fake enough.
In 2003 the Columbia Journalism Review interviewed Stewart for his wisdom on how to engage young people in reading the news. According to the Amazon.com page advertising his many books, Jon Stewart has written scholarly volumes on Kierkegaard and Hegel as well as Naked Pictures of Famous People and America: A Citizens Guide to Democracy Inaction, topping The New York Times Best Seller list for 15 weeks. That there may be two Jon Stewarts has not occurred to Amazons computer.
His audience, though small at a few million, is the marketing demographic the Evening News desperately wants to attract. They will replace those ads for drugs and pills aimed at an audience suffering from arthritis, failing hearts and constipation with ads for expensive sneakers, cell phones, video cameras and cheap flights to Cancun.
In its current form, The Daily Show show opens with screams and music and Stewart scribbling madly with his left hand on his script, as if rewriting it to the first on-air second. The lead story is Bush giving Medals of Freedom to three men who, as the world knows, didnt remotely deserve them. We watch a clip of Bush praising George Tenet for his great job at the CIA. Then the camera switches to Stewarts face. Since the basis of most humor is the contrast between what we see and what we know, the news item is inherently hilarious. All Stewart has to do is stare into the camera with a well-practiced facial expression that says: Isnt that the most ridiculous thing youve ever seen? Isnt Bush a jerk? And were stuck with this guy for four more years??
Whether this is a civics lesson is another question. And would it get on the Evening News?
One night recently Stewart interviewed actress Annette Bening. Like all Hollywood types on late night shows, Bening was there to promote her latest role, in this case in the film Being Julia. Most stars on these late night shows go out of their way to make themselves appear giddy and trivial lest they lose the studio audience conditioned to yelp at every drum roll, but Ms. Bening came across as an intelligent, sensible woman, reluctant to demean herself by talking late night nonsense.
But then, out of politeness, she suggested that Stewart was educating young people on political issues. The idea that the Daily Show format really gets young people to care about the world, however, is ludicrous. Its tone tells us to dismiss the world as absurd.
Stewart has made one contribution to media ethics. In October, as a guest on CNNs Crossfire, he told his hosts, Tucker Carlson and Paul Begala, that they were hurting America.
You have a responsibility to public discourse, he told them, and you fail miserably. Since then, CNNs new president, Jonathan Klein, has dismissed Carlton and canceled Crossfire. He has decided to leave screamers commentary to FOX and do real news.
Can any good come out of all this?
First, maybe CNN, having left the shouting and sensationalism to FOX, will take a page from BBC and live up to its potential as a fearless and thorough news source.
Second, CBS has promoted its standards person, Linda Mason, to senior vice president. She will review the credibility of documents, the use of confidential sources, hidden cameras, and interview quotes in full context. Before they jettison the traditional Evening News format, maybe CBS executives will read up on CBS history and rediscover the vision of the founders -- the combination of integrity and courage personified by Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite -- and appoint an anchor in March who represents that tradition. They could also put a plaque outside their New York Black Rock headquarters with Murrows 1958 prophetic warning on the future of TV in our culture:
This instrument can teach, it can illuminate, yes, and it can even inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise, it is merely wires and lights in a box.
Jesuit Fr. Raymond A. Schroth is professor of humanities at St. Peters College in Jersey City, N.J. His e-mail is RaymondSchroth@aol.com.
National Catholic Reporter, February 4, 2005
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