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Richard Cohen

Journalism Happens

By Richard Cohen
Friday, September 24, 2004; Page A25

Courage, Dan. Courage.

That word, once used by Dan Rather as a sign-off, perfectly describes what he needs now. He's made mistakes. He has not handled himself well. He probably prejudged the story, maybe working backward from the conclusion, and for too long put up his dukes and got into a defensive crouch. Still, the fact remains that both he and CBS are guilty of making a mistake. It can happen -- bloggers and others take note -- when you commit journalism.

Mistakes are what happen to aggressive news organizations. It is no coincidence that scandals being recollected at the moment are all associated with first-class newspapers or TV networks. It is that yearning to break the story, to make news, to bang the pot and change something for the better, that produced Janet Cooke at The Post or Jack Kelley at USA Today or Jayson Blair at the New York Times. They all took advantage of their organizations' hunger for -- and dedication to -- news.

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The difference between what happened to Rather and what happened with Cooke, Kelley and Blair is demonstrated by my wording -- "happened to" and "happened with." Rather did not concoct the apparently phony documents showing that George Bush was something less than a punctilious member of the Air National Guard. Someone else did. Rather was not trying to put something over on CBS or the public. He was the first one snookered.

Yet on the Internet and in the right-wing press, calls shrill with false indignation have been issued for Rather's scalp. It is alleged, it is insinuated, it is winked and poked and smeared and whispered that Rather is some sort of liberal apparatchik or personally in cahoots with the Kerry campaign -- and that he should retire instantly. It beggars belief that some of this is coming from the Murdoch media empire -- the New York Post and Fox News -- which reports everything but the weather with a slant, and even then I wonder.

The bloggers who were quick to spot the typographical discrepancies in CBS's tainted documents did their job. But it is only a piece of the larger job, which is to report the news. This is what Rather and CBS did -- not well enough, I grant you. But what animated them was good old-fashioned lust for the scoop. Believe me, those of us who have known such lust know it is blind. Rather would have done the same story on Kerry. It as, as Mario Puzo once pointed out in a somewhat different context, nothing personal. Just business.

What's ironic here is that more and more Americans are getting their news through partisan filters -- talk radio, Web logs (blogs), Fox News and the like. We are pre-selecting, favoring those news outlets that already favor us. Regardless of where you're located, you can join an electronic -- cable, Internet, etc. -- community that is more compatible than the real one in which you live. This enhances the importance of national or regional outlets that do not have, or share, an ideological purpose. Some news ought to be upsetting. Some news ought to intellectually upend you and, if possible, make you uncomfortable. This is a journalist's sacred duty.

As an opinion columnist, I rely a good deal on the reporting of others. I make my calls and have my lunches and sit in this or that government office, but I almost never break a story. I leave much of that hard work -- that very hard work -- to my colleagues, wherever they may be. It is the same with many bloggers, vultures sitting on the Internet, and a good deal of the media business today -- all those commentators on TV and the criminally insane on talk radio.

Dan Rather has probably gone through more shoe leather than a veteran postman. In this case, he was wrong. In this case, he was truculent, too, and it goes without saying that his producer never should have been in touch with the Kerry campaign. A lot went wrong in the reporting and producing of that "60 Minutes" piece. But in the end, competitive juices and an outsized lust for a scoop -- truth in a hurry -- led to a calamitous mistake. It is the inevitable price of aggressive journalism. When we no longer are willing to pay that price, we will be paying a far greater one.

cohenr@washpost.com


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