Rather Biased

On this week’s episode of Radio 4’s Americana the current state of US journalism was discussed with none other than “special guest” Dan Rather. In his introduction Matt Frei described Rather as a legend (twice) and a titan. The pair talked about various problems facing journalism, covering topics such as the chase for ratings, the newspaper industry, and citizen journalists. Rather concluded with the following observation:

“…let’s pause and remember what we as journalists are supposed to do when we’re at our best, fulfilling the best tradition of American journalism or journalism wherever it is, is play no favourites, pull no punches, and news is what is important for people to know that somebody somewhere in power doesn’t want them to know. Most of the rest is just advertising.”

At no time in their lofty discussions of journalistic ideals was it mentioned that Dan “play no favourites” Rather used demonstrably false documents in an attempt to smear President Bush in the run-up to the 2004 election, the fallout from which damaged CBS’s credibility and hastened Rather’s departure from the network. During the programme Frei quoted former Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee’s dismissive take on citizen journalists (“What about citizen surgeons?”) which was somewhat ironic given that his special guest was a professional journalist brought low by the fact-checking of bloggers.

Rather’s bio on the BBC Americana website states: “He retired from CBS in 2005 and is currently the anchor and managing editor of Dan Rather Reports on Hdnet.” In fact he only retired as CBS anchor in 2005, but limped on at CBS News until 2006 when his contract was not renewed. Rather filed a lawsuit against CBS for breach of contract but this was tossed out of court last month (another point not brought up by Frei). Clearly Frei didn’t want to bother the listeners (or embarrass the legend) by mentioning such inconvenient facts; Rather was, after all, fighting the good fight against President Bush and thus can be forgiven everything.

At the end of the programme Frei paid homage by signing off with Rather’s catchphrase “Courage”, a quality I then had to call upon myself to prevent my dinner from re-emerging.

Update. In related “play no favourites” news, this morning ex-CBS correspondent Mika Brzezinski gave MSNBC co-host Joe Scarborough her assessment of the political leanings at Dan Rather’s former network during the years she was there (via Newsbusters) :

SCARBOROUGH:…can you think seriously of one correspondent, of one producer, of one anchor, that was a George W. Bush fan?
BRZEZINSKI: I can. I can think of one, yes.
SCARBOROUGH: How many did you work for?
BRZEZINSKI: Many more than that.

That’s probably one more than the BBC.


“Sometimes you look at countries like China and you think, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice to be an autocracy in times like these?'” Matt Frei, Americana, September 20, 2009

Three weeks after Obama’s election victory, Matt Frei was filled with the spirit of hope’n’change and was looking forward to the prospect of “America’s brightest people” once again having the chance to put the country on the correct path:

Thanks to the multiple distractions of Bill Clinton and his administration, some of America’s brightest people were too busy ducking subpoenas or grappling with indecision at the top to perform their best work.
The Obama administration is a chance for them to prove their critics wrong and to live up to past expectations.

Things haven’t really gone to plan since then, and it’s all been the fault of those pesky “distractions” again. On this week’s Americana Frei interviewed New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman in the hope of finding a solution. And boy, what a doozy they came up with:

Matt Frei: Why all these distractions?

Thomas Friedman: There’s a lot of reasons. One, the end of the Cold War. The end of the Cold War made us really unserious because we lost our main competitor. Where would the New York Times be without the Wall St Journal? Everybody needs a competitor, right? All right, we lost ours so we got a little fat, dumb and lazy, and then we had money and politics out the wazoo. We now have a 24 hour news cycle. We have a blogosphere – I can start a rumour about you Matt that will tie you up for the rest of the week, OK, and by the time you catch it it will be half way to New Zealand. And we have a permanent presidential campaign. All of those have created an echo chamber where any bozo can come along and distract even the president.

Matt Frei: Sometimes you look at countries like China and you think, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice to be an autocracy in times like these?’

Thomas Friedman: Well you know I wrote the other day that you know there’s only one thing worse really than one party autocracy and that’s one party democracy – what we have right now, where only one party is playing.

What Friedman “wrote the other day” received this response from Mark Steyn:

The New York Times’s Thomas Friedman finally gets to where he’s been wanting to go all these years. Everything would be so much better if we could just submit to the benign rule of an enlightened elite.

Jonah Goldberg expanded that thought:

If only America could drop its inefficient and antiquated system, designed in the age before globalization and modernity and, most damning of all, before the lantern of Thomas Friedman’s intellect illuminated the land. If only enlightened experts could do the hard and necessary things that the new age requires, if only we could rely on these planners to set the ship of state right. Now, of course, there are “drawbacks” to such a system: crushing of dissidents with tanks, state control of reproduction, government control of the press and the internet.

Still, it’s a small price to pay for the autocratic rule of an enlightened elite, and far better than letting all those bozos and their distractions frustrate the wishes of intellectual superiors such as Friedman and Frei.