Junk Journalism

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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.