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Richard Cohen

Hollow Accountability

By Richard Cohen
Thursday, January 13, 2005; Page A21

It took no less a sage than President Bush to put the firing of four high-level CBS News employees in perspective: "CBS said they would act. They did. And I hope their actions are such that this doesn't happen again." This from the man who fired not a single person in his entire administration for getting nearly everything wrong about Iraq and taking the nation to war for reasons that did not exist or were downright specious. Lucky for Bush he's only the president of the United States and not the head of CBS.

Let us call the roll: George Tenet, who assured the president that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction? A graceful retirement and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

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Don Rumsfeld, who approved a battle plan of such brilliance that a 30-day war against a weak Third World country is still going on and shows no sign of ending? He stays in the Cabinet.

Condi Rice, the national security adviser who allowed the president to tell the world of Iraq's nuclear weapons program when it had none whatsoever? She is nominated to become secretary of state.

Vice President Cheney, who insisted against all evidence and with no evidence that Iraq was fast becoming a nuclear power, and who maintained that there was a link between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden? He stays on the ticket and remains a heartbeat away from the presidency.

Bush's observation to the Wall Street Journal is the deepest wisdom of a man who has always been protected from his own mistakes and failures, whether it's the oil business gone bust or a wayward youth rescued by equal measures of religion and family connections. His is the privileged view of privilege itself -- that others should do what he would not. For all his pretense of aw-shucks ordinariness, Bush's inner Yale sometimes oozes out. Some people should pay for their mistakes. Some people never have to.

Those who paid at CBS happen to be some of that network's best people. They made a mistake, no doubt about it. They had professional lapses. Again, no doubt about it. But most of them had long and distinguished careers. One of them, in fact, helped break the story about abuses at the Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad. They deserved to be reprimanded for putting an apparently bogus (at least the documents were) report on the air. They did not deserve to be fired.

Liars get fired. None of the CBS four lied. Plagiarists get fired. None of the four plagiarized. Incompetents get fired -- and one mistake over the course of an entire career is not proof of incompetence. All these people deserved another chance. Bush would understand that. He always gets another chance.

As others have pointed out, Bush won the election. But even before that, CBS had gotten a bad case of the shakes. It bagged "The Reagans," a biopic that drew the ire of conservatives, not bothering to snip out the offending scenes or in some other way salvage the film. The network lateraled it over to Showtime, the virtually unwatched cable channel owned -- as is CBS -- by Viacom.

Later, "60 Minutes" killed a report about whether the Bush administration had relied on false documents in making the case that Iraq tried to buy uranium from Niger. A CBS spokesman said it would have been "inappropriate to air the report so close to the presidential election" -- a statement just plain stunning in its implications. First of all, it was late September -- a full month before the election -- and, second, isn't affecting elections what can happen when journalists do their jobs? I mean, are we supposed to withhold the truth because, in addition to making you free, it might make you change your vote? This was a dark day for CBS and for all journalism.

Now it is even darker. The capitulation to Bush and the GOP is nearly complete. After the firings, the White House voiced its approval. So did Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie, who, keeping a firm grip on his emotions, did not suggest President Bush take note and do some firings himself. All over this great country, wherever right-wing pundits pund and bloggers blog, a chorus of gleeful approval was raised to the heavens. But in praising accountability, they were unaccountably silent about -- and here let me quote from the CBS report about what went wrong -- the "myopic zeal" of administration figures who got everything wrong, still do and have never been called to account for it. They had everything wrong but the target. It wasn't Iraq that was the pushover; it was CBS.


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