Friday, September 17

One for the history books

The textbook for my political communication class starts with a great illustration that describes how many of us relate to politics. We often feel like people arriving late to a cocktail party, with no idea what the conversations are and where they've been. One of my purposes in keeping this blog is to break down current issues so that anyone can "enter the ongoing argument", as the book puts it.

With that said, I had planned to write about the CBS News "Rathergate" saga, though I'm fully aware that it's now ancient news in the blogosphere (I might as well run around, a la Jim Carrey, screaming "We landed on the moon!"). But the Wall Street Journal on Thursday hit a homerun with "A Media Watershed", which belongs in every journalism textbook. The key graphs:

The current CBS "60 Minutes" imbroglio splendidly illustrates how the old political and media order has eroded. Democrats nominated Mr. Kerry in part because they thought his status as a Vietnam War hero would make him a formidable challenger--an assumption the liberal media echoed.

When that proved a miscalculation, Democrats talked about reviving the story about the President's National Guard service. Mr. Rather, a longtime Bush family antagonist and scourge of the political right, then broadcast the alleged memos from Mr. Bush's former commanding officer, and at least some of the old Rockettes (such as the Boston Globe) kicked in unison. Democrats released their own video on the subject, "Fortunate Son," not too long thereafter.

But then came the challenge to the memos' authenticity from the blogging world, which was quickly picked up by some mainstream media reporters (most aggressively ABC and the Washington Post). Soon enough the big story became not what Mr. Bush did during the war, but was Mr. Rather selling us more bull than a Texas ranch, as the CBS anchor might have put it on one of his newscasts.

Mr. Rather and his CBS bosses are sticking to their story, despite the growing evidence on the other side, leaving unanswered the biggest question of all: Who perpetrated this apparent fraud on CBS and the American voters? As journalists who sometimes go out on a limb ourselves, we'd have thought Mr. Rather's first recourse would not be to get mad but instead to double- and triple-check his sources.

That Mr. Rather isn't disclosing those sources, despite the damage to his reputation, raises the possibility that they are connected to the Democratic Party or the Kerry campaign. If that is true, then Mr. Rather would be revealed not just as a dupe, but also as the willing vehicle for a political dirty trick.

Read the whole thing. It's a near-perfect take on the state of the media, and it sums up well my own thoughts as I've sat through my journalism classes the last few weeks.

I'm so glad I've watched the blogs closely during this campaign, because I've learned far more by observing them than I could ever learn in my mass comm lectures. It's frustrating to sit in "Media and Politics" for an hour and a half as Rathergate rages, with only a passing mention of the story during class. The curtain has been pulled to expose the "old media", but is anybody watching?

Coming soon: Why does all this matter?


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