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Bad Sourcing

Dan Rather actually makes some good points about fake news, but lacks the credibility to stand behind them.

If you don‘t already know what a guffaw is, I’ll save you the trouble of looking it up. It’s the sound people make when they hear Dan Rather talk about fake news.

Rather, who once made his journalistic bones by getting mouthy with Richard Nixon at a 1974 press conference, is something of an expert on the subject. Having spent decades as a reporter and then the nightly news anchor at CBS, he all but shredded his career back in 2004 when he pushed a story about how George W. Bush had avoided service in Vietnam by using his family connections to land a cush position in the Texas Air National Guard, then went AWOL for a year. Backing up these claims were memos, supposedly written in 1972 and 1973, stating that Bush had failed to fulfill his duties and consequently had his flight status revoked. Only problem was, Rather and his producer Mary Mapes had not properly authenticated the documents—a fact that became painfully clear when internet bloggers were able to reproduce the exact spacing, format and typeface of the memos using the default settings in Microsoft Word.

An internal investigation conducted by CBS later revealed serious deficiencies in Rather’s reporting, all of which boiled down to the story simply being too good to check. It was an election year and, desperate for John Kerry to defeat Bush, Rather and Mapes had hoped that news of the commander-in-chief shirking his own military duty would be enough to bring him down. Wanting to be another Woodward and Bernstein, they instead turned into another Milli Vanilli—only instead of blaming it on the rain, they blamed everything on CBS News caving to their corporate masters. Sure, they maintained, maybe the memos were fake—but that didn’t mean they weren’t accurate.

And lo, fake news was born.

We’ve come a long way since then, but with the growth of social media, cable news and the consolidation of media ownership, fake news is riding higher than ever before. Some of it is due to inherent liberal bias—any institution in which the vast majority of its members all share the same opinions simply cannot avoid the traps of groupthink, no matter how much they insist otherwise—and some of it is because of powerful moneyed interests manipulating what the public sees and hears in order to advance their own agendas, but the audience now seems to be in on the con. Polling suggests that trust in the media is at an all-time low, a view that cuts across political lines, and so skepticism has become the order of the day.

Now here’s where I put on my movie trailer announcer voice:

”In a perilous time, fraught with lies and deceit, one man will rise to lead us on a path of truth and enlightenment. And that man is...’

[INSERT RECORD SCRATCH SOUND]

Dan Rather???

Yep, the man who sparked the fake news revolution is here to tell us how to handle fake news. Before you start guffawing too hard, though, listen to what Rather has to say. Most of it is actually quite sensible, and if it had come from another source it would even be wise. As it stands, taking advice from Dan Rather about fake news is a lot like listening to Stormy Daniels giving a lecture on abstinence: Even if what they say is true, the messenger undermines the message.

Nevertheless, there are some interesting points that Rather makes:

Trusting a news outlet does not mean they’re perfect. No one’s perfect. It means they tell you when they screw up.

​True enough—though this would carry more weight if Rather had simply fessed up about the fake memos, accepted full responsibility and then admitted that since there was no verifiable proof that Bush had gone AWOL we have to assume that the whole story is bogus. To this day, he maintains that the story is true.

The true test of trustworthy journalism isn’t that they never make mistakes. It’s whether they’re willing to challenge the powers that be on behalf of those without power.

​This is well-meaning claptrap—but claptrap is still claptrap, even when you dress it up to look like flan. Trustworthy journalism seeks to find the truth no matter where it leads, even when that truth conflicts with the reporter’s own prejudices. It’s called objectivity, and used to be the gold standard for reporting. The biggest problem with modern journalism is that journalists have forgotten this—if they were ever taught it in the first place.

What the news tells you is far less important than what they decide to talk about in the first place.

​This is absolutely, positively correct. I couldn’t have said it better myself. Which is why Sharyl Atkisson left CBS after her bosses there stonewalled her reporting on the Obama administration’s abuses during Fast & Furious and other scandals.

Kind of makes you wonder how many other stories go unreported because reporters would rather not jam up the politicians that they happen to like.

If they focus on personal, salacious and speculative stories, find a new outlet.

Does 60 Minutes doing a lengthy interview with a porn star on her purported sexual escapades with the current president fit into this category? If so, Rather must be urging people to quit watching CBS.

You are right on, Marc.

I constantly waffle between how much of of this type of thing is intentional manipulation and calculated hackery and how much is genuine cluelessness. I wonder how Rather can give this with a straight face and not notice the complete hypocrisy. I imagine there's some of both. These people live in a bubble and convince themselves that "my truth" is the truth. Thus they think they are being fair and holding to journalistic standards when nothing could be farther from the truth. Another part is they have an agenda and don't care about the obvious hypocrisy. What I don't know is how much is one and how much is the other.

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