Dan Rather on Bias: The GOP Is Biased; He’s Without Fault

Only right-wingers can’t be dispassionate, according to the disgraced CBS newsman.

By + More

In an attempt to resuscitate his reputation as an honest news broker, former CBS anchor Dan Rather seems determined to prove that he is a victim of right-wing bias at the network.

Rather, you'll recall, was pushed out the door over his September 2004 60 Minutes piece that alleged President Bush received preferential treatment while in the Texas Air National Guard. In the story's bloody aftermath, it turned out that not only were smoking-gun documents fakes but Rather and his producer, Mary Mapes, lied that they had been authenticated by experts. Rather resigned from CBS and now is suing his former network for violating his contract and impugning his reputation.

After Rather spent $2 million in his vanity lawsuit—and cost CBS the same—most of his lawsuit has been chucked out of court. But Rather has unearthed the following: that in selecting its investigative panel, CBS asked Republicans whether former GOP Attorney General Dick Thornburgh would be deemed a credible cochair. The Times claims Rather "may be getting something for his money," but I'm hard-pressed to see what that is.

Here, then, was the situation in September 2004: A news organization, news program, and news anchor, all long believed to be left leaning (and in the case of Mapes, confirmed left leaning), released a fraudulent and damaging story about the GOP's nominee in the final weeks of a presidential campaign. Credibility was rightly at issue, and CBS launched a public investigation.

For the investigation to be believed, of course, it needed leadership from someone aggrieved Republican viewers would deem credible. (As Andrew Heyward, the network's former president, stated in a deposition by Rather's lawyers, "CBS news, fairly or unfairly, had a reputation for liberal bias," and "the harshest criticism was obviously going to come from the right.")

At the same time, such a person couldn't be just a reflexive right-winger who would summarily punish CBS. That's why the network rejected possible panel members like Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, and Matt Drudge and settled on Thornburgh. And Thornburgh wasn't alone—his cochairman was Louis Boccardi, the former chief executive of the Associated Press and hardly a GOP operative.

So what were the conclusions of this commission that Rather says was politically motivated? As the Times notes, while the panel determined there was a "breakdown in standards by CBS in rushing the Bush segment to air," it found "no evidence of liberal bias in CBS' preparation of the segment."

That sounds awfully similar to Rather's own admission at the time: 

. . . If I knew then what I know now—I would not have gone ahead with the story as it was aired, and I certainly would not have used the documents in question.

. . . We made a mistake in judgment, and for that I am sorry. It was an error that was made, however, in good faith and in the spirit of trying to carry on a CBS News tradition of investigative reporting without fear or favoritism.

It's no secret that most newsrooms veer left (see Washington Post ombudsman Deb Howell's admission on Sunday), but journalists insist they are capable of reporting without political bias. Many of them do rise to the occasion. By the same token, however, is it not possible that a Republican former attorney general can do the same?

In the end, the only hack appears to be Rather. In his view, anyone right leaning is inherently fatally biased, and his own journalistic failures are someone else's faults—for which he claims to deserve $70 million.

  • Click here to read more by Sam Dealey.
  • Click here to read more on the Thomas Jefferson Street blog.
  • Click here to read more about the media.