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Correction to This Article
A Jan. 13 Style column incorrectly described press baron Lord Northcliffe as a Canadian. He was British.

Almighty Anchor

By Tina Brown
Thursday, January 13, 2005; Page C01

Alot of people at CBS News are mad that Dan Rather didn't get more blame in the independent panel's 224-page chronicle of decision disasters in the notorious "60 Minutes Wednesday" report on President Bush's Air National Guard service. It might have been better for Dan's reputation if he had. As it is, the network's star journalist, the craggy news guy with all those Emmys under his belt, comes off in the report as an empty trench coat.

Consider the facts. He didn't meet or talk to the immediate source of the ropy documents, disgruntled former guardsman Bill Burkett. He didn't know that Burkett was not the ultimate source but the handoff from an unnamed individual no one at CBS had been able (or even tried very hard) to talk to. He didn't send up any red flags that the documents in dispute were photocopies and therefore could never be truly authenticated (even though to some it might seem Investigative Reporting 101). He never even sat through a screening of the "60 Minutes Wednesday" piece before it aired. He left such micromanagement to his trusted producer, the indefatigable Mary Mapes -- now ejected along with all the others in the CBS News chain of command responsible for the segment except Rather himself and their uber-boss Andrew Heyward.

In the end, Dan Rather's legend skewered him, CBS and the craft of journalism. (Peter Morgan -- Reuters)

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Not that Dan was off having a manicure. The panel spares him from being fired like the others because most of the time that Mapes was on her mission, he was off doing the anchorly things that a network star does in a peak news season -- things like looking down from his CBS skybox at the Republican convention in New York and hurtling to the scene of Hurricane Frances so he could do his nightly newscast against a backdrop of whipping Florida palm trees.

There's no shame in that. TV journalism is a much more collaborative, horizontal business than print reporting. It has to be, because of the logistics. Anchors are wholly dependent on producers to do all the hustling. But there has been so much hype over the years about Dan's gritty journalism chops, so much "I'm just a reporter" misplaced modesty, so much implied green eyeshade in that screen credit of his -- not just host or anchor of the CBS Evening News but managing editor -- that everyone bought into it, him included. So he compounded the damage by insisting for 12 days on the accuracy of "his" story even as Mapes produced more "experts" with unchecked credentials to go on air and support it. It was part of the front-page romance of it all that Dan thought he had to keep declaring We Stand by Our Story! even when the story had more holes than a slice of gruyere.

It's simply not humanly possible to do properly all the things that Dan does so well and be an investigative sleuth, too. Channeling the news under intense pressure requires finely tuned skills, as worthy of respect as shoe-leather reporting. Speed of response. Fluency. Stamina. Improvisational confidence. An ability to synthesize large quantities of scattered information under great pressure. The aggression to parlay star power into closing in on the Big Get. Not for nothing was Dan Rather the last American to sit down with Saddam Hussein face to face. (Some critics scoffed at what the interview missed, but he was there and they weren't.) Top anchors earn their big bucks. When Peter Jennings is anchoring a breaking news story for ABC, he's a human hyperlink to the world, seemingly able to absorb and process information through the cheeks of his behind.

Elite print journalists don't appreciate these skills, however. ("Why blame Charlie McCarthy when Edgar Bergen screws up?" New Republic literary editor Leon Wieseltier cracked to me.) To win respect, the networks seem to feel they have to keep absurdly overstating their anchors' "reporting" cred. Note the new ad campaign trumpeting "seasoned reporter" Brian Williams as Tom Brokaw's replacement on NBC, the rebranding of Peter Jennings as the ultimate authoritative foreign correspondent on ABC and the tedium of having to watch CNN's Aaron Brown tramping around South Asia in those big shorts wordily empathizing with tsunami victims after a refreshing, anchor-free holiday interlude that gave us straight, information-heavy, personality-free reports from the scene of the devastation. Brown's reporting "almost reached the level of literature," CNN's news boss Jonathan Klein told the New York Observer yesterday.

In one of the more distressing moments in the panel's report, impending doom is writ large in the testimony of Esther Kartiganer, the CBS senior producer responsible for vetting the original transcripts of interviews to ensure that accuracy is not traduced in the editing process. She felt, the panel reported, that "the production was moving at such a fast pace that she was unable to become substantially involved in reviewing the scripts." She eventually stopped providing comments on the segment and "got out of the way" so that it could proceed on schedule.

In TV, you always feel you are standing on the tracks of an oncoming train called "making air." But in this instance, the train rushing through all the red signals seems to have been Mary Mapes. Investigative journalists have to be a bit nuts by definition. Without those obsessive, obnoxious qualities, they wouldn't be able to stand the knock-backs and false trails that often thwart a search for the truth. It's the job of editorial management to sustain but control these energies.

Mapes's credibility was so high because of a long CBS career and two major scoops for Rather -- Abu Ghraib and an interview with Strom Thurmond's African American daughter, scoops that had been career Viagra for a newsman on his last lap. It was her strong connection to the star power of the network's 800-pound gorilla that made her unstoppable.

In the end, Dan's legend skewered him -- but not as much as it has skewered CBS and the craft of journalism. The cloud that descended on Black Rock on Monday was not for the past but the future. How much will this debacle chill the pursuit of other risky investigations? The old press baron Lord Northcliffe's definition of news is still the only one that counts: "News is what somebody somewhere wants to suppress; all the rest is advertising."

©2005, Tina Brown

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