Once upon a time, Dan Rather — the fallen CBS celebrity anchorman from the evening news and at 60 Minutes — was the master of “gotcha” journalism. Rather would play up his populist credentials, do ambush interviews with supposedly self-important grandees, and then pull out an unknown memo, an embarrassing quote from one’s past, or some sort of previously unexamined hypocrisy. And, presto, down went the high and mighty, as Rather grinned that he had taken down another enemy of his middle-class viewers without power and influence.
Rather became a multimillionaire celebrity himself, and forgot the very rules of ethical journalism that he so often preached to his victims. Nemesis finally — she is often a slowcoach goddess — caught up with him at 73, in the heat of the 2004 campaign and furor at the Texan-twanged, evangelical, Iraq War promoter George W. Bush. Rather’s producers got hold of faked memos purportedly proving that the commander-in-chief had once gone AWOL while serving as a twenty-something pilot with the Texas National Guard.
Rather’s story of Bush, the privileged hypocrite, made a big splash, especially in the age of Cindy Sheehan and Michael Moore. When the truth came out that the memos were not only not true but could not be true, given their computerized format from the pre-Microsoft age, a red-faced CBS hierarchy fired a few of its marquee producers and eventually eased Rather out.
Rather sued. He denied. He blustered. He pleaded. He cajoled. He would not go away. When he was all through, he had become the sort of hapless prey caught in a web of contradictions that he once had enjoyed teasing before stinging on air. Rather’s defense was finally reduced to “the means justify the ends” argument that the memos could have been fake but his charges were still accurate.
NBC anchor Brian Williams was a less abrasive persona, but no less smug and privileged a celebrity tele-journalist. He too imploded when his Rather-like ego convinced him that Rule One of journalism — to demand the truth from others, first one must always tell the truth — no longer applied, given Williams’ omnipresence, big money, and colossal sense of self.
So Williams began making stuff up live in front of millions of listeners, as if he were the story and as if the audience were the amazed bystanders. Given his progressive faith, his celebrity status, and his nice-guy image, Williams apparently mythologized for quite some time without audit. His yarns were pathetic, in the sense that they characteristically placed Williams, as a self-inflated version of Forrest Gump, in a danger zone perhaps at risk of his life, but always cool, forever professional in conveying inside drama to Americans on their couches. A sort of journalist version of Hillary Clinton flying into the Balkans braving gunfire.
Like Rather, Brian Williams is now gone, at least for a while. He may be back, given that he made his network far more money than did Rather in his waning years. But who could ever believe his personal-voice psychodramas again?
George Stephanopoulos was a Clinton-era flack who effectively bullied would-be investigative reporters, did negative research, and massaged liberal journalists to convince America that Bill Clinton was not a philanderer and slave to his appetites who habitually lied to escape the serial messes he got himself — and his family and friends — into. And Stephanopoulos was good at spin apparently, in that Clinton won his election and the country ignored the various females whom he had bullied, groped, cajoled, and sometimes smeared.
Stephanopoulos wrote a memoir that served as a kind of mea culpa, as he transitioned into the limelight of New York-D.C. corridor journalism. Yet Stephanopoulos never severed his valuable Clinton connections, even as he went from partisan political analyst to supposedly disinterested anchor. Like Rather and Williams, his hubris got the best of him and he too ended up calling down Nemesis.
Stephanopoulos could not just question Peter Schweizer, author of an exposé on the Clinton Foundation. He had to go for the jugular, in ironic tu quoque fashion, suggesting that Schweitzer was a partisan hack and his book political mudslinging because the author had worked as a speechwriter for George W. Bush for four months.
That paradox was a bridge too far — given that Stephanopoulos had been no mere speechwriter or a four-month employee, but a recent donor to his old employer’s pay-for-play family foundation. The closer that Hillary Clinton got to announcing her bid for the presidency, the more, it seems, Stephanopoulos started giving money to the Clintons’ foundation and participating in their “charity.” He said he wanted to promote AIDS relief and save the trees, but there were plenty of foundations that did both without raking off 90% of their income for administration and travel or paying Chelsea over a half-million dollars to hang around.
The Clintons and Stephanopoulos were birds of a liberal feather. Hillary and Bill raked in $30 million in speaking fees in just the last 16 months (about $62,500 per day). Their left-wing politics supposedly gave them immunity from the obvious conclusion that they were con artists who had created a huge family racket (Chelsea gets $600,000 a year to help run it; Sidney Blumenthal got $10,000 a month in consulting fees) to shake down corporate grandees and foreign governments.
The motive seems unapologetic greed: the savvy dealmakers could donate to a former president’s and likely future president’s shell organization that hired their former, out-of-work flacks, provided the Clintons with free jet travel, and still funneled 10% of the cash to charities as progressive cover — as they looked for insider concessions like cell phone contracts or uranium acquisitions. To the extent one added to the pot through half-million-dollar fees directly to Bill for a few minutes of lecturing, there might be even more grants of most favorable-person status.
Stephanopoulos donated with time and money to all that, again only when it seemed wise to reinvest in Hillary as she hit the 2016 campaign circuit — when blue-chip access makes or breaks celebrity journalists. Like the Clintons, Stephanopoulos is a man of the left who likes to be paid in supposed right-wing fashion for his journalistic caring: $105 million for seven years at ABC, or $41,000 a day — for the next 2,555 days.
Unlike Williams and Rather, Stephanopoulos still works. But how could he ever interview a presidential contender given the doubts about his motives, whether corrupt or reformed? When he interviews Hillary, what will he ask: “Did my $75,000 get through OK?”
Add up all junk journalism — the Rolling Stone’s serial lies about false rape stories from Sabrina Erdely, the Jayson Blair myths, the New Republic stable of fabricators, the Fareed Zakaria plagiarism — and one can see why the public distrusts the news in general and those who provide in particular.
The problem with current reporting is not the bogeymen of the free-for-all internet, where there are no laws in the arena, but the blue-chip grandees who suffer the additional wage of hypocrisy.
Titles and associations, not character or talent, created a sense of entitlement that so often leads to overreach. Not all, but most of our junk journalists are progressives, given the creed that sometimes a memo, a story, an angle might have to be stretched a bit too far for the noble aim of helping the people, or for assuaging one’s own guilt of becoming well-off and celebrity-conscious from muckraking journalism.
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On a minor endnote, not long ago journalist Kate Linthicum from the L.A. Times called me for “comment” on the California drought and “immigration.”
I avoid the L.A. Times. In 2006 their former San Joaquin Valley reporter, Mark Arax, called me to “comment” on a “civil war” in the San Joaquin Valley between an alliance of Jewish neocons and Christian zealots who were supposedly pushing the Iraq War down the throats of the proverbial people, who did the dying.
His Jewish angle was borderline anti-Semitism. I told him there were few Jews in the Valley to begin with, and most Christians were apolitical, albeit the Valley was a far more conservative place than elsewhere in California and anti-war protests were rare. From that, Arax wrote that I had told him “great nations needed to wage war to remain great,” and that I wanted “a call for war against Islam.”
He offered no citations for those quotes, and never returned my calls. I offered the correction to his fabrications here.
Linthicum had seen a column in which I mentioned a number of causes of the drought dilemma: (1) lack of rain and snow; (2) failure to finish the envisioned California Water Project; (3) unwise release of reservoir water to the ocean for various green causes; (4) much greater California population today than during the last major drought, in part due to immigration (one in four current Californian residents was born in a foreign country). After five minutes of conversation, it was clear that she was interested only in point four, or rather a likely suggestion that I was scapegoating immigrants for water shortages.
I went through the four causes again. I added that I was not scapegoating immigrants, but noted the irony of policies that encouraged open borders yet no commensurate investments in infrastructure needed for population growth. For example, the paradoxes of welcoming immigrants to California while not improving highways, building more reservoirs, canals, and dams, or promoting more job-creating manufacturing, agricultural, oil, and mineral industries to handle them.
I reminded her that I knew what her preconceived narrative was, and I wanted no part of it. I referred her to quotes from the National Review article she was drawing from. (“A record one in four current Californians was not born in the United States, according to the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California. Whatever one’s view on immigration, it is ironic to encourage millions of newcomers to settle in the state without first making commensurately liberal investments for them in water supplies and infrastructure. Sharp rises in population still would not have mattered much had state authorities just followed their forbearers’ advice to continually increase water storage.”)
She denied an agenda, and to ensure her fides, promised to email the quotes she would use to run it by me for approval.
When she hung up, I concluded four things: 1) She knew nothing about California climate, weather, water policy, the California Water Project, agriculture, immigration, or even demographic statistics; 2) she saw a muddled story line in a sort of nativist scapegoating of poor immigrants; 3) she was not telling the truth when she promised to email me her use or non-use of quotes before publication.
The story came out with the quote:
In an article in the National Review, Stanford academic Victor Davis Hanson argued that while California’s current dry spell is not novel, “What is new is that the state has never had 40 million residents during a drought — well over 10 million more than during the last dry spell in the early 1990s.”
That bit supposedly summed up my long essay and Linthicum’s over 30 minutes of interviewing.
Turn on Brian Williams, read the L.A. Times’ lead stories, catch NPR on the radio, and it is often just liberal activism, careerism, and narcissism on the part of an elite who believes that their own activism exempts them from the contradictions of their own lives, as if privilege is not privilege if you crusade 9 to 5 on behalf of the unprivileged.