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It's Not Dan Rather, Rather Its US Journalism

By Philip M. Stone

UPDATE: Dan Rather announced in late November he was stepping down as CBS news anchor in March, 2005. The earlier  story below  which predicted that Rather would probably leave,  explains the background. The results of the independent CBS investigation into the affair resulted in no penalties for Rather or the CBS News President, but four producers were fired.   
The fuss about RatherGate -- US news icon Dan Rather getting a slam at President Bush wrong -- is not so much about a veteran newsman making a mistake as much as it is about the publicís trust in US journalism. Bluntly, if you can't trust Dan Rather, then whom can you trust?

T
o understand how serious this is in the US you have to understand the way US journalism works: If you make a mistake you own up to it, make a correction and move on. In Rathergate, Rather said for some two weeks there was no mistake, his story, he said, was based on an unimpeachable source. Two weeks later his network said it could not prove the allegations and the story fell apart. The network and Rather apologized. That's not what millions of Americans expect from a man they let into their homes every weeknight and with whom they have built, over some 30 years, a bond of trust.

The unwritten rule between the US public and the US media is that the public expects stories to be truthful and without bias. That means, in addition that the facts are true, that the reader, listener, TV watcher, is not supposed to be able to tell from a news story the political belief of the writer/correspondent. The story should be played straight down the middle, backed up with specific quotes whenever possible, with all sides given the opportunity to comment. On a political story about the President during a US election this is doubly so. Presented with such facts, and assuming the media keeps to its trust that it is following the rules, then the public filters the facts and makes its own opinions.

Lose the trust and the public will look elsewhere, and thatís not good for business. CBS doesnít want its news viewers going to NBC. The New York Times doesnít want to lose readers to the New York Daily News. And that is why the media, as a business, is so worried about RatherGate.

GALLUP POLL

A recent Gallup Poll taken after Rather had made his report but before the apology, indicated the US public's trust in the press had reached its lowest point in some 30 years. The newspaper trade publication, Editor & Publisher, rather unkindly headlined its story, "Thanks, Dan: Gallup Finds Trust in Media at New Low". It could have just as easily headlined it, "Thanks New York Times, Thanks Washington Post, Thanks USA Today ..." for recent major editorial scandals within those publications. The point is the trust between the US media and the US public has received some severe jolts, and the blame lays squarely at the media's door.

The anchors at the three major US networks have been around a long time. Rather, at 73, is the oldest; Tom Brokaw at NBC is 64 (retiring in December,) and Peter Jennings at ABC (just turned 66) are still reading the news every weeknight. They are there because the public has gotten older with them and they trust them. The news division is an important revenue producer, and the popularity of the news anchor weighs heavily in that equation. Never forget that no matter how much journalists think they are providing a service, their masters know they are running a very successful business operation. And it is business rules that apply.

Those outside the US may not understand (or believe) the US system relies on such impartiality. They listen to an American news story on an all news station and they believe they detect bias; they read an American newspaper on the web and they say they know what the writer "really" thinks. Maybe, maybe not, but in truth US news organizations do work very hard to keep such bias out of their product, although when they get into stories about supporting the troops in Iraq or athletes at major sporting events those editorial lines do get blurred.

IT'S DIFFERENT IN EUROPE

Europeans, on the other hand, live in a different media world where opinions are rampant within the news pages. But you also know beforehand what you are getting. In the UK, for instance, you buy the Guardian and you know you are getting a "Labour" point of view; buy the Daily Telegraph and you know it is "Conservative" You understand the way things are written; indeed you buy the publication because you know of the way it is slanted. You know you will seldom find a correction unless someone has threatened libel and has a strong case!

With Europe's broadcasters it depends on the country. In the UK, most governments Ė Labour or Conservative -- have had their battles with the BBC but usually kept their hands off the organization over the years allowing the BBC to build an international news brand second to none. But the BBC was hung, drawn and quartered this summer by the Hutton Report, based on a public inquiry set up by the government which looked into the BBC's reporting that key allegations in the UK government's Iraq dossier were wrong even though the government insisted the BBC was wrong.

The BBC stood by its story, but because of the suicide of the BBC informant a public inquiry was held, and the government was cleared. The BBC was wrong. The BBC chairman, director-general and the journalist who broke the story all fell on their swords although the news management survived. The unanswered question is whether BBC investigative reporting of the government survived? BBC editors say it has, with new rules in place. Proof will be in the pudding yet to come.

At the other end of the scale, the Italian government sticks its fingers continually into the operations of RAI. A recent satire show made fun of Prime Minister Berlusconi. That show is now off the air.

So, back to the US, when you have Dan Rather getting it wrong, or scandals at the New York Times and Washington Post -- two of the most respected newspapers in the US -- admitting that journalists made up stories -- then the media has only itself to blame if it is losing its public.

Before RatherGate it was thought Rather would continue as CBS anchor until he decides he had had enough (and there were no signs of that). Today, the unspeakable is being spoken and the media questions whether Rather can survive or will it be other heads to roll. Ultimately it will be a decision based on advertising numbers. CBS has appointed its own "Hutton Inquiry" in the form of Lou Boccardi, retired head of the Associated Press, and Richard Thornbergh, former US Attorney General. CBS promises their report will be made public although, unlike Hutton, their inquiry will be private.

CAN RATHER SURVIVE THE RATINGS FALL?

One can expect the report will highlight various failings and management will agree to whatever procedural recommendations are made for the future. But the important CBS decision -- does Rather stay or go -- will rest on how the public continues to perceive Rather. If polls, ratings, and private soundings say he still has the public's trust then he remains. If they show he is a liability to the business then he's gone. If there is a need for a sacrificial lamb -- well that's why news divisions have a president.

The early soundings indicate Rather could be in trouble. According to the Nielsen ratings service, Rather's nightly news program ratings have dropped 10% in the past year. Since the Bush story, in the top 10 TV markets Republican viewers have apparently deserted the program in droves with ratings plunging. And in New York City, the countryís number 1 market, Ratherís program scored dead last on one day against all competition, including cartoon shows.

Lower ratings mean lower advertising dollars. Those are the CBS Reports the network will most likely review with the greatest care.

© Philip M. Stone of  Stone & Associates, a partner in followthemedia.com

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