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The Apology Bush Owes Dan Rather

CBS pandered to the Republican party by giving its anchorman the boot for revealing the truth about the president's war record

As George Bush shuffles off to a long absence that is not only with leave but with a heartfelt global sentiment that it is long overdue, he leaves behind a lot of unfinished business. One wonders whether, just in case, he will smuggle in a pardon for himself for his technical desertion and very definite absence without leave from the Texas Air National Guard.

What is really in order is some sort of pardon and apology to Dan Rather, who CBS's cowardly management squeezed from 60 Minutes for telling the truth about Bush's war record. Rather's suit against them, with its accompanying subpoenas, has now revealed that in their eagerness to throw a sacrificial victim to the swiftboating bloggers with their escorting media sharks, CBS management actually considered such paragons of journalistic objectivity as Ann Coulter, Rush Limbaugh, William Kristol, William Safire and William Buckley for the investigating panel. Their concern was to counter the "reputation" of the network's liberal bias.

In the end, they settled on Dick Thornburgh, the Republican former attorney general appointed by the deserter-in-chief's dad, although apparently Roger Ailes, Fox News's brain was also under consideration.

Indeed, since they discussed the composition of this panel with the Republican party and Viacom's Washington lobbyists, it may even have been Republican operatives who had the good sense to realise that a Limbaugh or Coulter may not have the desired "reputation" of objectivity and credibility.

The investigation carefully did not consider the veracity of the charges against Bush, simply the provenance of the scrap of paper, but by the time it was over, many people who should have known better assumed that the story of Bush's desertion was refuted.

In fact, the evidence was compelling. Many others, myself included in my book, Deserter, had proved that George Bush joined the Texas Air National Guard with nepotistic backing in order to avoid service in Vietnam, a war that he agreed with. And then he went missing and failed to fulfill the terms of his service, an offence for which other less well-connected people were going to prison or being drafted to the jungle.

Let us consider the sins of Rather. Firstly, he admitted openly what everyone knew – that anchormen are performers not journalists. Secondly, 60 Minutes pandered to the television need for a McGuffin to wave around. However, it is still not proven that the memo under consideration was a forgery. What has been proven beyond doubt was that the information in it was accurate. The very secretary who said that she had not typed that particular piece of paper attested that she had typed exactly that same message.

The kindest explanation for CBS, other than outright political complicity, is that it paid the Danegeld, yet again, to keep the conservative hordes off its back by pandering to the Republican party. In a sense, it was not unique since most of the media were in post-9/11, post-Iraq mode mesmerised into thinking that any criticism of the Bush administration was treachery in the face of the enemy. It is not as if the Democratic benches hosted a swelling chorus of dissent either.

Rupert Murdoch cited the case last week: "Far from celebrating this citizen journalism, the establishment media reacted defensively. During an appearance on Fox News, a CBS executive attacked the bloggers in a statement that will go down in the annals of arrogance. '60 Minutes,' he said, was a professional organisation with 'multiple layers of checks and balances'. By contrast, he dismissed the blogger as 'a guy sitting in his living room in his pajamas writing'. But eventually it was the guys sitting in their pajamas who forced Mr Rather and his producer to resign."

No it was not. It was because the "mainstream media" – not least Murdoch's – took up the bloggers against Rather and amplified their case. In a sense, this defines the essence of swiftboating as an Olympic event. The bloggers, backed by Fox, the rightwing talk radio jocks and the editorial pages of the WSJ with their hangers-on at the Standard, National Review etc, will conjure up a perfect storm of vituperation against their target, be it Kerry, Kofi Annan, or Dan Rather, and put everyone on the defensive. The technique is to generate so much smoke that no one notices that there is no fire.

But for some reason the evidence against Bush, abounding in small and regional publications and on the web, was not taken up with the same assiduity. So much for Murdoch's concern for blogs – and for CBS's journalistic standards in the face of its owner Viacom's need to keep in with the Bush White House.

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