The Dan Rather fiasco over President Bush’s military service record is rapidly deteriorating into a free-fall for CBS News and a round-the-clock free-for-all for pundits and analysts. The problem is that we will miss the real issue in all this brouhaha. CBS News rushed to use documents in a news story that were poorly checked out. They decided to stretch the truth as far as they could take it, hoping, despite warning signs, that everything would work out. It didn’t. It seldom does when we play with reality.
Jay Rosen, NYU journalism professor, wrote yesterday about the CBS News situation: "Today's announcement is just one part of a massive institutional failure at CBS, much of it still to be uncovered. When the case study is done, the part that will seem extraordinary, and most inexplicable, is the ignorant and high-handed reaction from word one in the game of doubt that began on the Internet shortly after the broadcast aired."
The real issue here is not merely about document forgery or journalistic ethics, but our very notion of accountability. How far will people go in looking you in the eye and telling you one thing and then doing another? We’ve seen that some in the news media and politics will go way too far. Their actions reflect a “dumbing down” of expectations in public life. Anything goes – so long as there is a wink and a nod.
The CBS News actions smack of the same kind of behavior we’ve repeatedly seen from the presidential candidates. Take the mean-spirited, negative, and downright frustrating expenditures by the so-called “527” groups (e.g., Swift Boat ads). First, Senator Kerry tells the American people he supports campaign finance reform, and often seizes the mantle of reform on the campaign trail. But he sits on his hands and won’t really do anything to halt the insidious 527 expenditures by fellow Democrats. Similarly, President Bush, who opposed campaign finance reform, and only reluctantly signed it, then had the gall to praise the new law when seeking cover during the Swift Boat debate; he said that he has always opposed “soft money” expenditures and, thus, the 527 ads.
Neither candidate has had the courage to take on these ads, and shame them off the air. They hide behind the legal separation between their campaigns and these “independent” groups. They say their hands are tied. I don’t buy it. Nothing is stopping either candidate from standing up and saying, “I denounce these ads both in form and substance. They have poisoned the campaign, and the American people deserve better. If you care about the future of this country, you will put a stop to these ads.”
If the President of the United States can put a stop to Saddam Hussein’s rule in Iraq, surely he can put a stop to some television commercials. And if the Democratic nominee can’t stand up and be a leader in his own party, how can we expect him to lead the nation? Instead of debating whether or not the candidates displayed courage thirty years ago, we must demand that both of them show some courage now.
Accountability is not just for CBS News anchors and presidential candidates, but for all of us. There is great temptation for us to hide behind rules, procedures, and the status quo. But to create change, we must have the courage to step forward and hold ourselves accountable for doing what we believe is necessary and right. If we start with ourselves, eventually our leaders will follow.
The eye on America is on each of us.