CBS Ain’t Alone in Screwing With the News

I was amused by the self-righteous ruckus around CBS’s firing of four officials for their roles in the use of dubious documents about President Bush’s National Guard Service. (Parts of that service, of course, remain wreathed in the mists of history.)

The former “Tiffany Network” was justified in canning these characters. But the gleeful sermonizing of some in the Bush administration, and the tongue-wagging of folks in the “profession” (or whatever you call it) of journalism, about the world-historical crime committed by CBS to further a story that few Americans seem to care much about demonstrated the most delicious hypocrisy.

(My take on what happened at CBS: The producer, Mary Mapes, hates George W. Bush, and she and her colleagues, including newsreader-in-chief Dan Rather, desperately wanted a big story for “60 Minutes Wednesday” to goose the ratings. Rather, for his part, didn’t care all that much about how well the documents were vetted. He is, apparently, more of a face than a mind.)

As for the supposed decline and fall of broadcast news: It was never as wonderful as it’s being made out to be for the misinformation of younger people, who don’t remember when the big three networks had a virtual monopoly on broadcast news. Remember, folks, it was always a business, albeit one with far fewer economic pressures on it in the ’50s and ’60s than in this millennium.

There were only the three big networks then, and unforgiving and impatient stock-market analysts were less influential in determining corporate policy than they are now.

But then most people know that no one at CBS News could ever hope to reach the sublime levels of media manipulation achieved by special-interest groups, including some big companies, their hired hands at “think tanks” and politicians and other government officials.

Take Armstrong Williams, the conservative commentator who got $240,000 of your money from the Bush administration to promote the inevitably controversial No Child Left Behind law (inevitably controversial because people complain that all government programs are under-funded as soon as they’re created; in the rhetoric of the public square there is no such thing as an “adequately funded” government program).

I wonder how many other such “commentators” or “journalists” are on the government payroll for touting federal programs. Williams has plausibly suggested that there are a lot.

Many thousands of flacks are directly or indirectly employed on the taxpayers’ nickel to tilt public opinion, not just as official government spokesmen but also as “fellows” of think tanks (usually called “foundations” or “institutes”) to promote their bosses’ economic, social or political well-being _ and, when necessary, to do industrial-strength damage control in front of citizens who might think that these organizations are solely animated by principled belief, and not by fat fees and access to power (which results in more fat fees …).

The rise of the Internet and the innumerable new television outlets have provided so many more places for these energetic folks to spread propaganda _ and, blessedly, places to debunk it.

Meanwhile, every day most newspapers receive op-ed pieces signed by assorted distinguished people. Some, it turns out, are paid to simply provide their signatures, in order to give an opinion public validity. The “content” itself is often written by PR spinmeisters, not by the signatories.

So before we get on our high horse about bias at CBS, consider the many, many species of media corruption _ with only the self-respect and rigor of beleaguered editors, producers and other journalists to hold them at bay, in an increasingly monetized and “competitive” society.

Meanwhile, why does right-wing commentator Robert Novak sail along unmolested, even after having outed a CIA covert operative? Now there’s a media scandal!

(Robert Whitcomb is The Providence Journal’s editorial-page editor.)