Tuesday, January 11, 2005

None Dare Call It Conspiracy

The long-awaited report on "Rathergate" is finally out. I had no expectations that CBS would come clean with it and so am not all that surprised by what it does and does not contain. The only chance that CBS had of restoring its credibility was to be completely open and honest. That would have required a thorough house cleaning of their news department and setting up new procedures for transparency and responsiveness in its future operation. It would have been a bold, risky move that could have changed the face of network news and given CBS a fighting chance of long term viability.

Not surprisingly, they chose the same course that many corporations do when faced with such a crisis. Unwilling and unable to come to terms with the depths of their problems, they elected to go the safe and easy route. Admit that mistakes were made, but that they were limited to a few individuals who were overzealous. Pretend that the organization itself is still healthy and not in need of sweeping changes.

Will it work? In the short term perhaps. Most of the media seems ready to close the books on the case and move on. Bloggers and talk radio hosts will continue to push for more disclosure and consequences for the bigger players, but, unless something sensational emerges in the next couple of weeks, the story will likely fade from public attention.

In the long run, CBS will continue its slide into irrelevance. They've pruned a few branches while the trunk will continue to rot. This crisis was actually an opportunity for CBS to wipe the slate clean and make a fresh start. They could have been the first broadcast network to embrace the new world of media and journalism. Maybe they still would have fallen by the wayside along with the other networks, but at least they would taken a shot at a different approach.

"Any plan conceived in moderation must fail when the circumstances are set in extremes."
-Prince Metternich

By far the most interesting part of the whole story is not that people working at CBS news were biased. Most conservatives have understood that the majority of the mainstream media has a liberal bias. And over the years, CBS news, and in particular Dan Rather, were among the most egregious offenders.

Most conservatives have explained their belief in media bias in terms of the liberal template through which the news is presented. If you look at the educational experiences and backgrounds of the people in the newsrooms, you find common characteristics that lead to a more liberal worldview. This is supported by surveys that have found that most of these folks tend to vote liberal as well.

Taking this into account, conservatives have developed a benign theory of liberal media bias. There were was no grand conspiracy for liberal bias in the news or for the most part even a conscious effort to slant the news. Most reporters, editors, columnists, anchors, etc. had a liberal viewpoint which influenced the news that they chose to present and the way that they presented it. This is the essence of the "liberal template" that you most often hear used to explain media bias.

But in this case, there was a lot more than just a liberal template influencing the reporting. Mary Mapes spent five years looking for a way to make political hay out of Bush's national Guard service. The timing of the "60 Minutes II" story and the launch of a DNC ad campaign called "Fortunate Son" is either an incredible coincidence or evidence of possible collusion between CBS and the Kerry campaign. Power Line and Captain Ed have much more on the very active efforts by CBS to use the story to hurt Bush politically and on further ties between CBS and Democratic operatives. As Hindrocket notes, this is an angle that merits further exploration:

The relationship between the Kerry campaign and the 60 Minutes story is a subject that badly needs to be investigated, but the Thornburgh group did not pursue the issue beyond noting the communications between 60 Minutes staff and the Kerry campaign.

Another question that should be raised, is how often has this sort of coordination between liberals in the media and the Democratic Party occurred in the past?

I'm still convinced that a good deal of what conservatives view as liberal media bias can be explained by the idea of the template, but I wonder if we've been a bit too quick to dismiss the notion of more intentional, active bias, which in some cases (like Rathergate) border on conspiracy?

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