They can be heard in Dan Rather’s lectures on “lies.”
In the era of Trump, the liberal media is reeling under the fear of faded privileges. Chief among them is the practice of passing off dominant and fashionable opinions as “facts” on front pages. Reporters, itching to expose Trump, have never been more inclined to blend fact and opinion.
It is anger at the thought of losing this privilege that explains Dan Rather’s attack on Gerard Baker, the Wall Street Journal’s editor-in-chief. An icon of the legacy media’s many flirtations with fake news, Rather ripped into Baker after he made the sober and unimpeachable comment on NBC’s Meet the Press that reporters should not use the word “lie” in their articles without strong evidence of the speaker’s intent to deceive.
Rather called Baker’s remark “deeply disturbing.” Completely ignoring Baker’s distinction between a falsehood and a lie, Rather writes, “A lie, is a lie, is a lie. Journalism, as I was taught it, is a process of getting as close to some valid version of the truth as is humanly possible. And one of my definitions of news is information that the powerful don’t want you to know.” To the extent that Rather even engages Baker’s point, he says, “It is not the proper role of journalists to meet lies — especially from someone of Mr. Trump’s stature and power — by hiding behind semantics and euphemisms. Our role is to call it as we see it, based on solid reporting.”
The distinction between a falsehood and a lie is a matter of definition, not semantics — a distinction that a careful reporter would take seriously. But Rather is not interested in the requirements of precise reporting. He would rather bluster on about journalism as a crusade to nail the “powerful” or talk about how it is now “gut check time” for journalists in the age of Trump.
That Rather can even get a hearing for his sloppy attack on Baker testifies to the lingering nostalgia the mainstream media feels for the monopoly it once enjoyed. Under that monopoly, the journalistic disciplines, which Baker is simply seeking to uphold, eroded so badly that a figure like Dan Rather could go with his “gut” on a story based on forged documents. Long before that debacle, Rather, conceiving of himself as a high priest of truth-telling against sinister pols, had adopted the habit of blending fact and opinion and was finally undone by it.
To Rather, Baker’s conception of a reporter is too modest, too lacking in glory. But if Rather had restricted himself to it, his career wouldn’t have ended in disgrace. Now he has been reduced to the marginal status of a partisan folk hero who gets hurrahs from the Huffington Post and teaches an online course on “finding the truth in the news.”
In one of the lectures, he discusses the “Killian documents,” which he still insists contain the “truth” about George W. Bush’s National Guard Service even if they are forged. After his firing from CBS, Rather, reminiscent of O.J. Simpson’s pledge to find his wife’s killer, had pledged to find the real documents. He is still looking.
In the meantime, he managed to convince liberal Hollywood to finance a movie about his journalistic malpractice called Truth. Rather is Exhibit A of why editors like Gerard Baker wisely stop their reporters from making judgments about the facts they collect.
In response to Rather, Baker notes that declaring a falsehood a lie, in the absence of “solid reporting” on the subject’s intent to mislead, is just an opinion masquerading as a fact and an attempt by the reporter to substitute his judgment for the reader’s.
One would think Dan Rather, who so recoils at the label liar (and will only admit to innocent inaccuracies), might appreciate the rigor of Baker’s approach. In examining stories about himself, Rather has taken affront at the blending of fact with polemical accusation. But in Trump’s case, he feels no hesitation to blend the two.
Students of his online course on truthful reporting may end up feeling like they deserve a refund. If such a course had appeared on the curriculum at Trump University, the chattering class would have called it a scam.
“I will confess to feeling a little burst of pride at being instructed in reporting ethics by Mr. Rather,” writes Baker. “It feels a little like being lectured on the virtues of abstinence by Keith Richards.”
The lecture is also strange, given Rather’s past musings on “honest” presidents. In 2001, he called Bill Clinton an “honest man,” adding bizarrely, “Who has among us have not lied about somebody? I think at the core he’s an honest person… I think you can be an honest person and lie about any number of things.”
Don’t expect him to extend that standard to Trump. In Rather’s ludicrous lecture to Baker, one can hear the death rattle of a complacent media that disguises its partisan judgment as “truth.”
Peabody Awards (2002)/Creative Commons