Why it's important to remember Rathergate

An important anniversary passed last month and predictably received no attention.   This anniversary carries implications for how we receive news, how political campaigns are conducted, and the credibility of almost everything we see or hear from the media. 

On September 8, 2004, CBS’s “60 Minutes” used forged government documents as the basis for a story that attacked the military record of then-President George W. Bush.  It was bad enough that CBS used forged government documents, but what made it worse was that CBS aired this story during the presidential election and timed the airing to coincide with the rollout of Democrat John Kerry’s “favorite son” campaign theme. CBS thus provided the “news” upon which the Democrat candidate based his attack ads.  The CBS story was quickly disproven and eventually forced CBS into personnel changes and investigations.  Dan Rather was forced into retirement a few months later. But CBS did not give up before a lengthy battle in which bloggers demonstrated that the font and other features in the forged documents did not exist in 1972 (the date placed on the forgeries).

The battle over the truth became a story in itself. The truth about the font spread like wildfire through the blogosphere and the internet, quickly picking up steam. CBS, Rather and the left clung to their story as long as they could.  They even invented the “fake but accurate” standard to defend the forged documents.  CBS and its surrogates belittled the bloggers but ended up making them famous.  Conservative bloggers would embrace the “pajamas” epithet thrown at them during the battle – some of whom still use it today.  With persistence, they established that CBS was wrong.  The documents were forgeries, and CBS personnel committed misconduct in airing the story. Investigations and lawsuits and an independent panel followed. 

The result was a victory for the truth and a blow to the establishment media. CBS was proven to have lied to influence a presidential election. Its lie was discovered and exposed very publicly over two weeks.  The repercussions continued. Dan Rather “retired” the following winter (he is still trying to repair his reputation).  CBS would be relegated to a distant third place in the news ratings for years, despite endless hype for high profile new anchors. (An excellent summary of the scandal appears in Hugh Hewitt’s 2005 book entitled Blog, at pp. 37-42.)

Why is a 2004 scandal at CBS still relevant 16 years later? Even without Dan Rather, the network has not truly changed. The other networks are just as bad – if not worse.  Rathergate serves as one example of what the establishment media do. They lie.  They lie regularly, and they lie during election years to help elect Democrats. They have created the permanent campaign and the permanent commercial in which they continually look forward to the next opportunity to elect Democrats. We cannot know every lie that they broadcast or print. But the experience of exploring Rathergate can help immunize us against future such lies. Celebrating the anniversary has a cleansing effect that leaves us stronger.  We develop herd immunity to future lies because we commemorate this one prominent lie. 

The left does not allow its “victories” to collect dust. They perpetually celebrate Watergate (they’ve produced two new films just since 2017), further distending the bloated library of Watergate movies and books.  Leftists glorify Watergate witnesses and reporters. Even the co-conspirators are brought out of mothballs to condemn more recent GOP presidents. Viewers will never be allowed to forget it. Students of history learn about little else. These commemorations come in handy for the left when they make contrived and false accusations against new GOP administrations.  Leftist followers have a convenient roadmap to impeachment as they ponder each fresh attack against Donald Trump. The Watergate comparison overshadows every new item of fake news.  With each new battle, the GOP begins with one strike against it because the left perpetually commemorates Watergate.

By contrast, the conservatives begin each new election cycle attempting to prove leftist bias in the media by highlighting voter registration among reporters, percentages of negative stories about GOP politicians, or censorship of conservative stories on social media.  Those strategies are adequate as far as they go, but they are insufficient.  We start each election cycle from scratch, never building on the facts we have established in prior years. 

We can do more.  We can celebrate our past victories in ways that reveal the true context of our political wars.  We can commemorate and explore Rathergate the same way that the MSM commemorates Watergate. Every year, we can write articles and columns noting the anniversary.  Conservative authors somehow manage to get their books published. Some of those books can focus on Rathergate.  The story is compelling, for it features conflict, intrigue, dishonesty, and a successful resolution. 

Conservatives should also produce films and documentaries. Those films can chronicle the events of September 2004. The blog posts that brought down America’s longest-serving anchor would be better preserved in book form or even on film. set to dramatic documentary music. The bloggers that exposed the lie can be interviewed. They have a story to tell. 

It will take more than one book, one movie, or one anniversary article. We need repetition. Many aspects of the scandal remain unexplored.  Our initial despair upon CBS’s airing of the forged documents was followed by anger as we learned the truth. That anger gave way to exhilaration as we realized that we could, indeed, defeat the MSM.   The MSM’s attacks on bloggers immediately following September 8, 2004, would, themselves, fill a volume. 

The explosion in the blogosphere in the months after the scandal is its own compelling story.  The scandal inspired thousands of bloggers to document their ideas and spread facts that the MSM ignores. Some of these bloggers made careers for themselves in journalism. For the first time, they discovered that they were not alone in their beliefs and could amplify their efforts through concerted action.   Because it continued to commit journalist atrocities, the MSM has already and will, in the future, provide more opportunities for such unified action. Hugh Hewitt has compared this explosion in blog activity to the early days of printing in the aftermath of Gutenberg’s printing press.  

By exploring each of these angles through film, publications, social media, and even fiction, we could create a new backdrop for our political discussions. Instead of seeing every Republican president in the context of Watergate, we should filter every MSM story through Rathergate and its progeny. Skepticism about the MSM is not new.  But it would be more concrete if the words of the Rathergate heroes rang in our ears as we witness each new bizarre accusation against President Trump. We need context to understand the mass of noise that the MSM daily throws at us. We cannot forever be mired in petty battles over the latest nonsense. We must see the forest instead. Rathergate was a major step toward discovering that forest. Let us make that discovery a constant part of our political discussion.  

Image: Dan Rather (edited in Pixlr), by Moody College of Communications. CC BY-SA 2.0.

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