Once again, the news media have delivered a body blow to their own credibility. This time it came from CBS and veteran anchor Dan Rather, when the network failed to properly authenticate documents indicating that President Bush had received preferential treatment during his Air National Guard service before airing them on the Sept. 8 edition of CBS's venerable "60 Minutes."
The Post, especially staff writer Michael Dobbs (who also played a central role in looking into the attacks on John F. Kerry by Swift Boat Veterans for Truth) and media reporter Howard Kurtz, was at the center of smoking out the facts of this case with the help, at the outset, of online sleuths working in what has become known as the "blogosphere."
Several readers wrote to compliment Dobbs and Kurtz. Others lamented that CBS's mistakes would now also effectively end the willingness of the press to keep inquiring about the still murky circumstances of Bush's Guard service.
The breakdown at CBS, and its prolonged and pugnacious defensiveness when the questioning began, can be added to a rough patch of other recent and serious self-inflicted wounds.
The New York Times was damaged last year by the phony stories of reporter Jayson Blair and by some of its reporting on weapons of mass destruction before and after the invasion of Iraq. Before that, its pursuit of the Wen Ho Lee espionage case was also later acknowledged as flawed. USA Today, which also used the leaked but phony Guard documents in its initial reporting, suffered embarrassment early this year from the now-discredited work of Jack Kelley, once its star reporter. There have been other, less publicized scandals at smaller papers involving plagiarism and related matters. And there has been a body blow of a different sort -- the falsification of paid circulation figures at Newsday, Hoy (Newsday's Spanish-language tabloid), the Chicago Sun Times and the Dallas Morning News.
The New York Times and USA Today undertook investigations into how their problems arose, and CBS News will do the same. I believe these organizations will emerge stronger.
But more is in the air, literally, these days. Twenty-four-hour cable networks, talk radio, the Internet and the blogosphere have drawn an increasing number of readers and viewers from the nation's traditional media.
There is much to be said for some of the contributions of the new media. Yet there should be no doubt that there are huge stakes, and huge losses for all of us, if the traditional media in this country stagger and do not regain their credibility and retain their aggressiveness. The New York Times and CBS News are among the most important news organizations in the world. USA Today has become a much better newspaper than it was at its birth 22 years ago. The other major TV networks contribute important news and investigative reporting, as do the other major newspapers, wire services and the Public Broadcasting System.
But there are, in fact, precious few such outlets; news organizations that have enough reach, money, journalistic talent and dedication to report in depth and to uncover wrongdoing -- and enough resources to fend off attempts by commercial, legal, political and special-interest groups to intimidate them. They are absolutely vital to an informed public and to democracy, and the people who run them need to shape up.
In all of these cases, editors, publishers or producers ignored warnings or basic journalistic guidelines. These supposedly tough-minded organizations suspended the kind of judgment and accountability they demand of others. Sometimes the warnings came from staff members who had serious doubts about stories or people but who had no way to dent management's commitment to a particular story line or way of thinking about something or someone. Serious news organizations can't afford to let that happen any longer.
Other matters engaged readers last week that I don't have room to write much about here. Among them:
One year after refusing to publish a week's worth of the "Boondocks" comic strip drawn by Aaron McGruder, The Post did it again last week, only this time it didn't tell readers. The Post says that comics are edited just like any other feature of the paper and denies that this is censorship. Editors say last week's offering was racially offensive and used negative stereotypes of African Americans to lampoon TV reality shows. Last year The Post was the only paper, among 250 that buy "Boondocks," to drop it. This time seven other papers dropped it, including the Boston Globe. I disagreed last time, and this time, too. I think McGruder, who is African American, is a brilliant artist who has created young, black characters speaking with razor-sharp, satirical candor who say things that make us uncomfortable but also make us think.
Another story readers complained about to me was a big spread on the front page, and two full pages inside, last Monday. The headlines read: "$17 an Hour/The Vanishing Middle-Class Job" and "As Income Gap Widens, Uncertainty Spreads; More U.S. Families Struggle to Stay on Track." A front-page graphic called "Losing Ground" showed the percentage of households earning close to the adjusted median income ($35,000 to $49,999) declining over three decades from 22.3 percent to 15 percent. Yet a big graphic inside showed that this decline is accompanied by significant gains in households earning above the median income and significant decreases in households now below it. In other words, there was a big and more positive side to this story that was mostly missing from this basically gloomy offering. Post editors say "the idea was to look at a long-term economic shift that doesn't portend good things for a certain segment of society." This was the first of an occasional series, and I thought it got off to a confusing start.
Michael Getler can be reached by phone at 202-334-7582 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.