The price of CBS stardom

In the annals of journalistic deception, The New York Times had its Jayson Blair, USA Today had Jack Kelley, The New Republic had its Stephen Glass. And now CBS has its ... who? Dan Rather, because he is the show window of this media department store?

In discussing this case, let me stipulate what hardly needs stipulating - that I worked for CBS for 23 years and left amid some spirited differences with management.

An independent panel found "considerable and fundamental deficiencies" in a "60 Minutes" report alleging that President Bush had received favored treatment in the Texas National Guard. CBS ousted four news executives. Dan Rather, who had previously announced his retirement in March, was faulted for over-enthusiasm in defending a report that turned out to have been based on forged documents.

However badly it turned out, I commend Mr. Rather's reflex of standing up for the troops as an initial response. It reminded me of an episode from Watergate days. The biggest story that Woodward and Bernstein had dug out up to that point was a report that Hugh Sloan, Nixon campaign committee treasurer, had testified before a grand jury that White House chief of staff H.R. Haldeman controlled a slush fund that financed Watergate. Mr. Sloan's attorney denied Sloan had given any such testimony. I called Post editor Benjamin Bradlee for comment. He sounded a little shaken as he said, "We stand by our story."

The story turned out to be basically correct. Sloan was scheduled to go before the grand jury, but hadn't yet done so. Mr. Bradlee and the Post took a lot of flak from the White House and elsewhere before its Haldeman story was basically vindicated.

It was in that tradition that Rather, with little knowledge of the National Guard story, initially supported producer Mary Mapes, whose credibility seemed high because she'd broken the Abu Ghraib abuse story. There's no doubt that competitive zeal led CBS to become the victim of a hoax, and to stick with it too long for a group who pride themselves on their professionalism. But, to my mind, Rather's role was minimal. He was well motivated in sticking with the troops. And if he now seems like the center of the furor over at CBS, it is because that is the price of stardom.

Daniel Schorr is the senior news analyst at National Public Radio.

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