washingtonpost.com  > Columns > Tina Brown

Breaking the News, Then Becoming It

By Tina Brown
Thursday, September 23, 2004; Page C01

Are the media having a nervous breakdown?

The Dan Rather affair looks like yet another giant freakout in the patient's collapse. For Rather and CBS, all the conflicting tensions that torture journalists and producers day and night came together. The broiling partisan heat, the pressure to get out of third place with a scoop, the hot breath of cable news, the race to beat all the hacks and scribes who keep nibbling away at the story (your story, the story you've spent five years trying to get right), the baying of the bloggers, the sick sense of always being news-managed by the White House's black arts, the longing to show the Web charlatans and cable-heads that rumpled-trenchcoat news is still where the action is, the pounding inner soundtrack that asks: Am I a watchdog or a poodle? A journalist or an entertainer? A tough newsman or a mouse with mousse?

All this pandemonium in his ears is what made a legendary news icon go over Niagara Falls in a barrel, as David Gergen put it on CNN. And when the barrel hit the rocks, he stuck to the line that always used to work before in this movie: I Stand by My Story! Rather may have been eerily calm when he finally went on the air to announce, "I no longer have the confidence in these documents that would allow us to continue vouching for them journalistically." But he looked as if his psyche had been through Hurricane Ivan.

Dan Rather's on-air apology came after bloggers attacked the veracity of CBS's report. (Suzanne Plunkett -- AP)

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The New York Times betrayed the passive-aggressive guilt complex that lingers after the Jayson Blair fabrications by playing the CBS story above the fold on Tuesday's front page and the beheading of an American hostage in Baghdad below the fold, at the bottom. A Manhattan news factory screwed up big time -- and it wasn't us! Will Dan lose his job? That's the big news. An American hostage losing his life -- that's the small news.

Journalists the length and breadth of the land publicly beat up on Dan, but privately -- even in the capital of schadenfreude -- they were not as gleeful as you might expect. Every editor, producer and reporter knows that the warp speed of the news cycle means we are all only one step ahead of some career-ending debacle. But still the panic to beat the competition trumps every other concern. Reports this month that Fox News had surpassed the other networks' ratings with its GOP convention coverage only inflamed the terror of mounting obsolescence.

Fear of missing the bandwagon is behind all the hype about the brilliance of bloggers who blew the whistle. You'd think "Buckhead," who first spotted the flaws in the documents, is the cyberworld's Woodward and Bernstein. Now the conventional wisdom is that the media will be kept honest and decent by an army of incorruptible amateur gumshoes. In fact, cyberspace is populated by a coalition of political obsessives and pundits on speed who get it wrong as much as they get it right. It's just that they type so much they are bound to nail a story from time to time.

The rapturing about the bloggers is the journalistic equivalent of the stock market's Internet bubble. You can see the news chiefs feeling as spooked as the old-style CEOs in the '90s who had built their companies over 20 years and then saw kids in backward baseball caps on the cover of Fortune. It finally drove them nuts. It was why we saw Time Warner's buttoned-down corporate dealmaker Gerald Levin tearing off his tie and swooning into the embrace of AOL's Steve Case.

The equivalent today is when news outfits that built their reputations on check-and-double-check pick up almost any kind of assertion and call it a "source." Or feel so chased by the new-media mujaheddin they start trusting tips garnered from God-knows-where by a partisan wack job in Texas.

A further symptom of the nervous breakdown was the spectacle of the intrepid CBS producer Mary Mapes -- she who was set to win all the prizes for her Abu Ghraib exposé -- crossing the line between independent journalism and political intrigue when she gave in to her source's request to put him in touch with the Kerry campaign. The way things have unraveled must be Karl Rove's wet dream: a living, breathing example of ostensible liberal media bias with which to bludgeon the rest of the press into an even deeper defensive crouch.

Documents or no documents, everyone knows Bush's dad got him out of Vietnam. Everyone knows he thought he had better, funner things to do than go to a bunch of boring National Guard drills. (Only a killjoy like John Kerry would spend his carefree youth racking up high-minded demonstrations of courage and conscience, right?) Like O.J. Simpson's infamous "struggle" to squeeze his big hand into the glove, the letter was just a lousy piece of evidence that should never have been produced in court. Now because CBS, like Marcia Clark, screwed up the prosecution, Bush is going to walk.

Or maybe not. There are lies floating around that are a lot bigger than anything CBS or Bush is saying or hiding about what happened thirty-odd years ago in Texas and Alabama. They're about Iraq and they're about now, and Kerry is finally talking about them coherently enough to have a chance of getting some traction.

As for Dan and CBS, it wasn't really politics that drove them over the edge, was it? It was romance. That's the sad part. How good did it feel when they broke the Abu Ghraib story just a beat before Seymour Hersh at the New Yorker? How satisfying is it when a real news sensation takes hold instead of some tabloid trash moment (like Janet Jackson's flashing breast)? A veteran newsman is in the twilight of a long and distinguished career. He just wanted to taste that sweet medicine one more time.

© 2004, Tina Brown

© 2004 The Washington Post Company