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Wednesday, September 15, 2004

Why congressional investigation of Rathergate must proceed

Two pundits whose opinions and judgment I respect, Hugh Hewitt [update: latest link] and NRO's Ramesh Ponnuru, are debating the wisdom of Hugh's repeated calls for congressional hearings on CBS News' promulgation of the forged Killian memos.  I've already stated my view, which mostly parallels Hugh's — the only difference being that I'd support delaying the hearings until after the November 2 election if, but only if, CBS News immediately begins to clean its own house by a public firing of the responsible individuals and instituting real internal reforms.

I'm not a fan, in general, of congressional investigations.  There is no doubt that Congress should have and exercise its power to gather information as it performs its constitutional function of creating and adjusting legislation that authorizes and directs executive-branch regulation (here, of the FCC).  But I was not, for example, supportive of the "Nipplegate" hearings over Janet Jackson's Super Bowl "wardrobe malfunction."  Congressional investigations have at best a checkered record in discovering and exposing wrongdoing.  And yes, they're intrinsicly subject to political grandstanding and reputation building.  (See, for example, Robert A. Caro's superlative book Master of the Senate: The Years of Lyndon Johnson, in which Caro explains how Johnson methodically and very cynically built his political power and public profile through such hearings with a degree political skill and effectiveness both unprecedented and since unmatched.)

I also agree that because they tend to hyperpoliticize the issues along partisan lines, congressional investigations in general often add more smoke and heat than light to a given controversy.  When other means of investigation and exposure are available, in general I'd prefer that they be used instead.  Somewhere inside the DoJ, for example, dogged and competent career prosecutors are plugging away at the Valerie Plame outing — and that's exactly as it should be.

Here, however, there is no reasonable or timely alternative means of getting past CBS News' continuing stonewall.  The one individual who unquestionably has the standing, grounds, and means to bring civil litigation — the target of CBS News' fraudulent and defamatory scheme, President George W. Bush — won't use that means.

Mr. Ponnuru writes that "[w]e have reason to think that current efforts to hold both CBS and the forgers accountable are in the process of succeeding — thanks not least to Hugh Hewitt! — and there is no reason for Congress to force the issue in a way that could well backfire."  I respectfully disagree.  I might have agreed six days ago, but again, with due respect, Mr. Ponnuru has not pointed, and cannot point, to any indication that CBS News is ever going to do anything but repeat the pathetic empty promise Rather made again at the conclusion of tonight's "60 Minutes II" broadcast:  "If we uncover any information to the contrary, rest assured, we will report that also."

No, sir, every indication is that CBS News is continuing its stonewall on the details of its own malfeasance.  "Never mind that we spread throughout the national consciousness forged documents that we knew (or should have known) were fraudulent," they're insisting. "Never mind that we've been willing and eager participants in propagating manufactured faked evidence!  Hey, the real story here is that the retired secretary of a deceased Texas Air National Guard officer thinks young Bush thought he was above the rules!" 

This is the equivalent of a bank-robber, caught red-handed with a bag of cash in a bank lobby, pointing to the sidewalk outside and shouting, "Look, a jaywalker!  You can trust me to get to the bottom of these partisan allegations of bank robbery.  But now — quick!  After that jaywalker, officer!"

So the problem is that unless Congress acts, there's no officer to put the cuffs on Dan Rather.  There's no detective to press Dan Rather on his source, and no grand jury to compel Rather to reveal that source.  Short of a criminal investigation — which I continue to think is unlikely — CBS News has every incentive to stonewall, to tough it out, to keep trying to change the subject.  They've seen that they can get away with it.

Mr. Ponnuru argues that "hearings would create allies for CBS that it does not deserve."  Again, I respectfully disagree.  Hearings would focus on CBS News' breach of the legal, professional, and ethical responsibilities it undertook when the FCC, through Congress' authorization, granted its affiliates' broadcast licenses.  The queue of those rushing to support promulgation of forged documents will be a short one — no new "allies," but only the most hardcore anybody-but-Bush partisans who are reduced to arguing that the ends they (and CBS News) seek to promote justify the most vile and repulsive means.  And the public would benefit from seeing who joins that short and ridiculous queue.

I repeat:  The hearings should start on Monday with a congressionally subpoenaed appearance by a  CBS News custodian of records, to be followed by the compelled appearance of Dan Rather to testify under oath.  The able guardians of the pokey inside the U.S. District Courthouse in Washington should begin preparing a comfy cell to hold Rather while his citation for contempt of Congress gets resolved.

There are other media aplenty — old media, new media, left- and right-leaning media, and of course, us pajama-clad bloggers — who can sort through whatever arguable merit there may be in the allegations against Bush.  But if CBS News persists on putting the eager and unrepentant abettor of a forged document fraud onto the national airwaves — as it has again done just moments ago! — there must be an investigation with legal teeth (even if only the comparatively blunt ones of  congressional subpoena power), and there must be consequences at its conclusion.


Update (Wed Sep 15 @ 10:04pm):  From tomorrow's WaPo:

Separately, Rep. Christopher Cox (R-Calif.), citing reports in The Post and the Dallas Morning News, asked that a House communications subcommittee investigate what he called "the continued use of CBS News of apparently forged documents" intended to damage Bush's reputation and "influence the outcome of the 2004 presidential election." But the panel's chairman, Rep. Joe Barton (R-Tex.), rejected the request, saying that the oversight of network news should be left to the viewing public and news media.

Congressman Barton, you're missing the point.  The viewing public and news media don't have subpoena power.  You do, and that's the only thing that will get through the CBS News stonewall.

Posted by Beldar at 07:45 PM in Mainstream Media, Politics (2006 & earlier) | Permalink


Other weblog posts, if any, whose authors have linked to Why congressional investigation of Rathergate must proceed and sent a trackback ping are listed here:


(1) Sam made the following comment | Sep 15, 2004 8:13:47 PM | Permalink

Viacom/CBS's stock dropped 2% today. According to the KerrySpot, the CBS affiliate stations are angry at CBS News. Keep contacting these folks with your outrage and give your support to those are helping to get out the truth.

See this link for the Top 50 Viacom/CBS shareholders:

List of CBS Affliates:

(2) Roundguy made the following comment | Sep 15, 2004 8:16:49 PM | Permalink

The O'Reilly Factor is supposed to have Rather on the show. I didn't catch when but it's soon. Also, listening to Juan Williams on the Factor, he seeems to repeatedly argue that its the message that is important...modus ponens?

(3) Bostonian made the following comment | Sep 15, 2004 8:29:20 PM | Permalink

Speaking as a random blog-reader, I'm not convinced, but I haven't thought about it enough. I know that Hugh Hewitt makes a similar case.

CBS and Rather will take a pounding anyway. CBS may need to save face by sacking Rather, which is all good to me.

To my mind, the important change is not reforming CBS to some arbitrary level of goodness, it is getting enough Americans to be skeptical of the MSM and to start checking its claims. Then and only then will CBS & friends have a reason to strive for factual correctness, instead of insulting our intelligence with ludicrous fakery, as they do now.

But your blog has been uniformly careful and thoughtful, so I will think about it more.

(4) Greg D made the following comment | Sep 15, 2004 8:40:53 PM | Permalink

"If we uncover any information to the contrary, rest assured, we will report that also."

I'm sure they will.

OTOH, I'm also sure that they won't look. And since they're not looking, they can't "uncover" anything.

After all, they didn't say "if someone else uncovers something to the contrary we'll report on it."

(5) J Green made the following comment | Sep 15, 2004 8:47:53 PM | Permalink

Please do not try to politicize this subject. This is simply about the facts and bias of the MSM being exposed through the MSM. If congress gets involved the real problem will be lost in a swirl of partisan BS. Let the blogs, alternate media and the MSM fight this out. The good guys are winning and the truth is winning, although slowly. Slowly only because of Rather's arragance. Let him sqirm and fight his affiliates and the entire press but please keep congress the hell away from this.

(6) Dan S made the following comment | Sep 15, 2004 8:59:57 PM | Permalink

Conversation with a CBS affiliate person and a friend happening in real time:

Viacom wants Dan to recant the story or they will fire him and cancel 60 minutes.

Other heads will roll too. Most of the news staff.

CBS may cancel all news too, effective December 31.

CBS news staff cannot find one expert that will authenticate the memos.

According to this affiliate insider, that's the conversation now inside CBS.


(7) Dan S made the following comment | Sep 15, 2004 9:04:00 PM | Permalink

Further addition: Nothing will be said until 4:30pm tomorrow.

(8) Greg F made the following comment | Sep 15, 2004 9:17:51 PM | Permalink

I have to disagree with having Congress investigate, as opposed to a career Federal prosecutor, for a couple of reasons. It will, at the very least, have the appearance of being a partisan hack job. More importantly, the long term health of the free press will be better served if people are prosecuted for this fraudulent behavior. It may be emotionally expedient to ask for a Congressional investigation now, but it is doubtful that any prosecutions would ever result. That, in the long term, would be far more tragic for the future of the country.

(9) Wacko made the following comment | Sep 15, 2004 9:38:36 PM | Permalink

Let's keep our eye on the ball here. If CBS concludes (perhaps with prompting from USA Today) that the documents it was given were forgeries, all pretense of an obligation to protect its source vanishes immediately. Suddenly, CBS has in its posession a new, explosive story: its source committed a felony in an effort to affect a presidential election. What could be its reason for not disclosing the source? Could it be that it knows that such a disclosure would harm its favored candidate? Nahh...

(10) rat gate made the following comment | Sep 16, 2004 3:35:18 AM | Permalink

This controversy was much more interesting when Congress wasn't involved.

The Repubs are idiots for defending themselves. I no longer feel sympathy for them.

(11) anonymous made the following comment | Sep 16, 2004 5:42:15 AM | Permalink

Posted by Beldar:
The viewing public and news media don't have subpoena power. You [Congressmen] do, and that's the only thing that will get through the CBS News stonewall.

Posted by Sam:
Viacom/CBS's stock dropped 2% today.

I am no lawyer, but wouldn't a stockholder lawsuit against CBS allow subpoena power without the political complications of a Congressional hearing? There may exist out there people who a) care for the truth and b) own some CBS stock. From what I've seen online and at various news outlets, it wouldn't seem to take a legal genius to make out a reasonable case that CBS failed to exercise anything remotely resembling "due diligence" in the way it handled this report, resulting in losses to our hypothetical stockholder.

Heck, from some of the reports about the feelings of CBS affiliates concerning this entire affair, some of them may be ready to consider similar legal actions.

Just a thought...

(Note: e-mail address in name-link not mine, but simply that of a place accepting comments on matters concerning Dan Rather and CBS.)

(12) Preston Brown made the following comment | Sep 24, 2004 4:26:33 PM | Permalink

Rather has followed his past in proclaiming information that has proven to be fraudulent, false, and politically motivated and promoted by him . Fire the SOB, soonest.

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