September 27, 2004

JOHN LEO ON RATHERGATE:

Years ago I was part of an odd panel discussion sponsored by the American Society of Newspaper Editors. It was a flat-footed version of those role-playing dramas that Fred Friendly constructed so brilliantly for PBS, the ones where he would walk around the room posing hypothetical questions that often tied famous journalists up in ethical knots. I was assigned the role of a newspaper editor who had the option of running a political expose that would have had many wondrous effects on his town but that simply did not check out as true. I said I wouldn’t run the story until my reporters nailed it down. This apparently unexpected position brought the whole poorly thought-out hypothetical to a screeching halt. No complex ethical dilemmas could be built on it. The Fred Friendly stand-in that day, assigned the role of badgering me to run the big story that didn’t check out, was Dan Rather.

This brings us to a little-asked question about Rathergate: Why was CBS so determined to broadcast its alleged scoop about George Bush’s National Guard service before the story was properly checked out? Four of the six documents involved had been in the possession of 60 Minutes for only two or three days, and three of the four experts consulted by the network said they couldn’t authenticate them. Why didn’t CBS just wait a week and do some elementary checking?

Why, indeed?