Rather Restrained

CBS Evening News Emmy-award-winning anchor Dan Rather is no stranger to a big news story. After all, he broke the news on TV of John F. Kennedy's death on Nov. 22, 1963, and his career has spanned most of the major events of our time.

More recently, though, Mr. Rather decided his news program ought not to follow the still-unfolding Chandra Levy story - until last week, when he and his producer, Jim Murphy, decided after 11 weeks that the case of a missing intern contained some actual news.

Rather presented an "exclusive" report on the missing intern, with the news that the FBI had turned the case over to its "cold unit," suggesting that the FBI at least, had no real leads.

Although Rather's judgment has been, and probably will continue to be, questioned, there's no doubt that he, in his delay in reporting the story, did the right thing.

Some have suggested CBS knew it couldn't devote the resources to cover the case of the missing intern, and that in any case the network received even more publicity for not covering the story. That aside, Rather deserves commendation, if only for his explanation of why he and his producer waited until they decided they had real news to report. After breaking his silence on the story, he told viewers that no crime had been established and that no one had been charged. That's Journalism 101.

Rather's move took journalistic courage, the "out there all alone" kind of courage reminiscent of Katharine Graham, who took her own unwaveringly independent stance when other media chose not to cover the Watergate break-in. Her paper, The Washington Post, did, with historic results.

Rather's decision on the Levy story, while it won't have that kind of impact, is noteworthy. This story, sadly, has all the elements that too often pass for "news" - sex, celebrity, and mystery. Today, feeding the 24/7 beast that calls itself news creates degrading pressures - often resulting in the selling of salacious details to the public.

The desire to boost ratings and command more advertising dollars doubtless prompts some producers to report things that simply haven't been proven true, just to keep the story "alive" - such as suggesting that Rep. Gary Condit (D) of California could be a suspect in the case when the police, all along, have said he wasn't.

Rather's restraint, and his call for "decent and responsible journalism," ought to be a lesson to those who trade in news of the unsubstantiated kind.

And the public, which may often be tempted to follow lengthy coverage of stories largely void of real news, ought to show more wisdom and restraint by turning them off until there's actually something to tell. Perhaps they already are. A recent Pew Research Center for the People and the Press poll found only 16 percent of Americans "very interested" in the Levy tale.

While other networks served up the Levy story night after night, CBS reported on other subjects, easily of greater national and international significance.

Thank goodness, Dan, that sometimes the camera does blink.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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