David Manning Trivial Liars of the Month for November 2004
Seldom has a "surprise announcement" been so expected. Dan Rather, the embattled CBS news anchor, announced that he will be leaving the chair formerly occupied by Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite in March. Rather is 73, and the ratings of the CBS Evening News has been sinking faster than a catfish who has swallowed buckshot (as folksy Dan might say), but neither of these were the reasons his announcement had the thud of the second shoe dropping. Rather's exit was anticipated because he had embarrassed himself and the network by relying on obviously forged documents in order to make a late in the campaign hit on President Bush. An internal investigation is expected to set the tumbrels at CBS rolling, with Rather's head among the first to go.
And yet, Rather claimed that his departure was in no way prompted by the Texas National Guard story fiasco. Nobody, absolutely nobody, believes him, because this is clearly not true, for a number of reasons:
"All right," the empathetic among you might say, "so he's trying to save face. What's the matter with that? Give him a break." And beyond a doubt, that is indeed what Rather is trying to do: put the best spin on an embarrassing position. Still, Ethics Scoreboard cannot let him of the hook. His is a trivial lie because it is such an obvious and futile lie, but in other ways it is anything but trivial. Rather had an opportunity to do a service for his network and his profession through his resignation, and he lacked the character to seize it.
He should have made it clear that his stepping down was occurring precisely because of the forged documents debacle. He should have stated that he let his political biases and his zeal to report a "scoop" cloud his journalistic judgement, and as a result had permanently damaged the relationship of trust between him and the public. (CBS news icon Murrow said it best: "Everyone is a prisoner of his own experiences. No one can eliminate prejudices…just recognize them.") Rather could have emphasized how important it is that the nation get its news without doubts about its reliability or the motives of those who report it, and that all news organizations need to exercise vigilance to make certain this occurs.
Finally, he could have admitted he was wrong, and apologized. Rather has yet to do that. Indeed, he has never publicly admitted that the documents were forged, and his determination to stay as a reporter on "60 Minutes," the scene of the crime, so to speak, smacks of defiance. It is too bad. In leaving the post that he had filled so ably for most of his tenure, Dan Rather could have shown leadership and humility that might have served as a model for his profession as it tries to adjust to the changing world of news dissemination. Instead, he chose to spin his own story, giving us one more reason to be confident that it was truly time for him to go.
There was a time when Dan Rather would sign off his news broadcast with the word, "Courage." What a pity that he couldn't muster that quality now, when he needed it most.