President Bush was reelected, and Dan Rather wasn't.
That, in a nutshell, is the outcome of a bitter four-month struggle between the White House, which insisted there was no basis for the "60 Minutes" report casting doubt on the president's National Guard service, and a major network whose controversial anchor chose to give up his job before the release of the outside panel's report that sharply criticized him yesterday.
Many Republicans couldn't resist crowing that the report, commissioned by CBS, repudiated the network's reporting on so many levels, given the longtime conservative animosity toward Rather as a symbol of liberal bias. And although the panel's report found no political bias by anyone at CBS, it was clearly a setback for the mainstream media against an administration that has often stiff-armed or ignored journalists, whom Bush calls an unreliable "filter" between him and the public.
Conservatives hailed the panel's findings as a watershed event that would go well beyond a single flawed report by a lone network, asserting that the matter would tarnish the media broadly and would convince Americans that Bush had served honorably during the Vietnam War and received no special treatment.
"It's an unprecedented moment as far as conservatives are concerned," said Republican media consultant Keith Appel, whose firm worked with the Swift boat veterans group that fought Democrat John F. Kerry's presidential candidacy. "I think it's a warning to the rest of the media."
White House and Republican officials were careful not to gloat yesterday. Presidential press secretary Scott McClellan said: "We felt all along that it was important for CBS to get to the bottom of this. CBS has taken steps to hold people accountable, and we appreciate those steps."
Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie issued a statement praising the network for taking action after its "unprofessional conduct" on the story.
But beyond the magnanimity, Republican leaders were confident the report would add weight to their charge that the media have long been unfair and inaccurate in reporting about Bush. After four years in which Bush's truthfulness has been questioned by the press on matters including economic projections and the threat posed by Iraq, the White House can point to a high-profile episode in which it was indisputably wronged by a major media outlet.
"I think it is part of a series of things that have gone on in the broader mainstream media that led to a decline in confidence among the public," Gillespie said in an interview, citing fabrication scandals at the New York Times and USA Today. As for Bush's Vietnam-era record, he added, "The public has made their judgment: They know the president served and was honorably discharged."
The impact of the CBS scandal was magnified both by Bush, who often disparages the media, and by Rather, who pugnaciously defended himself as the victim of conservative attacks. Rather drew the battle lines clearly in defending the story, saying the critics included "partisan political operatives," and told the outside panel he still thinks the accusations of Bush receiving favorable treatment are true, whether or not the documents are real.