06 October 2007

Investigative Journalism Retrieved

Sidney Blumenthal has an article in openDemocracy concerning the wrongful dismissal lawsuit that Dan Rather has just launched against CBS. As Blumenthal astutely points out, the message of this lawsuit is less about Rather's personal vindication (and any monetary vengeance he might ultimately exact from his former employer), and more about discovering the truth of historical details that are at the centre of Rather's firing. Moreover, the facts of the case reveal the unhealthily close ties between the Bush White House and the major mass media outlets. Indeed, even a search of Google News for "rather wrongful dismissal cbs" returns only 6 hits - most of the major outlets are notably ignoring this story (but the bloggers are not). It must be big! As Blumenthal points out,
If the court accepts his suit, however, launching the adjudication of legal issues such as breach of fiduciary duty and tortious interference with contract, it will set in motion an inexorable mechanism that will grind out answers to other questions as well. Then Rather's suit will become an extraordinary commission of inquiry into a major news organisation's intimidation, complicity and corruption under the Bush administration. No congressional committee would be able to penetrate into the sanctum of any news organisation to divulge its inner workings. But intent on vindicating his reputation, capable of financing an expensive legal challenge, and armed with the power of subpoena, Rather will charge his attorneys to interrogate news executives and perhaps administration officials under oath on a secret and sordid chapter of the Bush presidency.
After relating the history of the case, including the allegations that Dan Rather broadcast about Bush's military record, his behaviour in the Texas Air National Guard, and the extreme lengths that CBS executives went to in order to kill the story, Blumenthal observes how the newsmedia - that putative fourth estate of government that is supposed to watch the other three - has instead become the handmaiden of the Administration - not quite a Ministry of Propaganda, but most certainly a Ministry of Propagating the Government's Agenda.
Rather stood for the remnants of CBS's tradition of speaking truth to power, as Edward R Murrow did finally about Senator Joseph McCarthy and Walter Cronkite did finally about the Vietnam war and Watergate. The corporate unease with Murrow's outspokenness, leading to the cancellation of his weekly programme, See It Now (depicted in the recent film Good Night, and Good Luck), was little different from the unease with Rather a half-century later. At last, the corporation's necessity for demonising Rather coincided with the long-standing conservative demonising.

When CBS replaced the edgy Rather with the sugary Katie Couric as anchor of the Evening News, it imagined it had solved its problem, its "errors". The news would get softer, the Republicans in control of the White House and Congress would be nicer, Viacom would grab more media, and ratings would climb. Thus, dismissing Rather would yield untold dividends. Unfortunately for CBS's visionaries, none of that has worked out as planned. Couric simply lacks basic journalistic instincts and skills, and the CBS Evening News is at rock-bottom in ratings and sinking farther.
In launching the lawsuit, Dan Rather returns to his roots as an investigative journalist, in the proud tradition of his forebears, Murrow and Cronkite. For Rather, the challenge that lies ahead is itself a reversal of what has been the news tradition: instead of shedding light on important issues, contemporary mass newsmedia often promote ignorance - literally ignore-ance, hoping that the easily distracted public will look away and ignore what actually affects their way of life.

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