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Newsmen Versus Presidents

Jonah Goldberg takes issue with my attempt toanalogize CBS' airing of forged Killian memos with the Bush administration's citing of forged memos in a major address designed to convince the country to go to war:

Say Matt Yglesias, trying very hard to get the world back on message (White House evil, Bush liar, Cheney mean, etc etc). One could take the bait and deal with all of the Red Herrings Yglesias throws up (not a great image). For example, surely, Yglesias would agree that Bush's "sourcing" on WMDs was better than Rather's on the 60 Minutes story. Indeed, Bush's sourcing on the "yellowcake" story itself was better, despite the impression Yglesias tries to convey.

But I don't want to take the bait, because that would take me off message. And the message of the day folks is Dan Rather is melt-imploding like those dudes who looked into the Ark of the Covenant at the end of Indiana Jones.

But, I should also note that Yglesias is making what some call a category error. The President of the United States isn't a newsman -- let alone the iconic personification of the establishment media righteousness. If Yglesias thinks Presidents should be judged by such standards, than I assume he thinks Bill Clinton should have been an intern at Weekly World News.

Let's go dig up some herring.

Bush's sourcing on the "yellowcake" was not better. With regard to the Killian memos, CBS failed to do due diligence and check whether or not they were forgeries. This was bad. With regard to the Niger memos, the White House was told by the CIA that they were forgeries. Some further investigation of the matter was undertaken by the intelligence community which further indicated that the documents were forgeries. Nevertheless, the president went forward with the yellowcake claim in his speech. CBS was negligent, the Bush administration was malicious.

Now onto the alleged category error. Clearly, being the anchor of a TV news program is not the same as being the President of the United States. Nevertheless, the State of the Union Address is basically a television broadcast -- you have the cameras trained on a guy who speaks to the audience. It's still not the same as a television news program, but I don't see how their different in some way that's relevant to the propriety of making factual claims based on forged documents.

Now to be clear, this line of thought on my part is an attack on the Bush administration, not a defense of CBS news. If people conclude that Dan Rather is no longer a reliable source of information and choose to watch ABC World News Tonight instead of The CBS Evening News, or if they want to continue watching CBS but apply some enhanced skepticism to those reports, I would be hard-pressed to call that course of action unreasonable. Indeed, I would anticipate that CBS' ratings will fall in response to this and that if that happens it will probably lead Dan Rather to get forced out.

But if Jonah wants an apples-to-apples comparison of journalists to journalists, I would advise him to pay closer attention to The National Review Online, a media outlet which has proven itself -- over and over again -- to be a grossly unreliable source of information. Just yesterday we had Stephen Moore arguing that thanks to globalization and information technology there are no longer any barriers to entry in any market and that, therefore, the Sherman Antitrust Act ought to be repealed. This is, shall we say, completely wrong. There may be a case for repealing the Sherman Act (I'm not an expert in this field) but whatever that case may be, it shouldn't be based on a grossly inaccurate factual claim. And yet, that's what Moore did. And NRO published it. This is pretty much par for the course for NRO Financial and it's something that's not in any way excused by the fact that it is, in some sense, opinion journalism.

So if you don't want to watch Dan Rather, don't watch him. If you don't want to be lied to about vital national security issues, you'd better get a new president. And if you don't want to publish bizarre distortions of economic theory, you'd best not publish Stephen Moore.

September 16, 2004 | Permalink

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