Tuesday, September 21, 2004

Thoughts on Rathergate

The election. On the whole, I see Rathergate as a minor plus for Bush. Since the President was leading in the polls before the incident surfaced, and since it has drawn so much focus, it has somewhat crowded out other messages that might substantively influence voters.

Aside from the crowding-out factor, an argument can be made that the whole Rathergate kerfuffle benefits both candidates about the same:

Why this helps Kerry. It keeps attention on Bush's National Guard record, and it shows that most media outlets can police each other, defraying charges of widespread media bias.

Why this helps Bush. It exposes leftwing bias and a reluctance to face facts at a major media outlet, and it calls into question the tactics of those who would attack Bush.

CBS and Rather. Dan Rather has survived serious questions about his impartiality and his journalistic ethics before, and he will survive this. But he is nearing retirement age, and perhaps CBS will hasten the grooming of a replacement.

The network has serious egg on its face. It was wrong to ignore some of its own experts; it was wrong to air the segment on the memos; and it was wrong to continue defending the memos in the face of overwhelming evidence. Even its apology was weak. (We are unable to ensure the legitimacy of the documents, rather than We believe the documents were forged.) But the public has a short memory and the network will recover.

The media. In the long run this will be seen as a very small part of a much bigger trend -- the shift away from the "mainstream media," that is the big-3 television networks and a few large print publications, as unquestioned sources of news. This trend was well ensconced before the current scandal, as exemplified by cable news stations beginning to outdraw the networks (e.g., for this year's Republican convention) and by the increasing influence of blogs (e.g., the Trent Lott affair). Just as VCRs did not destroy movie theater industry, new media will not be the downfall of mainstream media. But they will continue to grow as competitors and complements of mainstream media.

Update: John Podhoretz is unimpressed by Rather:
And what Rather did yesterday was beyond forgiveness. He is continuing to argue that the airing of a patently fraudulent effort whose purpose was to change the results of a presidential election was an act of "good faith."

You know what I hope? I hope Rather doesn't quit. I hope he isn't fired. He is indeed the CBS anchor — and now that the boat is taking on water, his dead weight is going to sink it for good.