11. January 2005 · Comments Off on Bound Down With Anchor Chains · Categories: General, Media Matters Not

The actual report on the Dan Rather/60 Minutes/Memogate fiasco seems like a bit of a hiccup after the fact, an anti-climax, now that our election is over and JFK part Deux returned to richly deserved near-obscurity on the national scene. Events have overtaken it; with over 150,000 dead following the Indian Ocean tsunami, and the Iraqi elections coming up at the end of the month… the moving finger of history moves on, leaving gleeful humorists to make biting references to “Gunga Dan” and the “See BS Network”, and wondering if “anchor”— as in something heavy and leaden, dragging everything else down into the watery muck— might be the appropriate word after all.

At least with the dust somewhat settled, and with the results of an in-house investigation in hand, it can be seen that once again, as James Fallows observed so cogently in “Breaking the News: How the Media Undermines American Democracy”, a reporter is never so apt to get the whole thing wrong as when he or she goes into a story already assuming they know the end of it. Or as Stephen Den Beste (pause to genuflect, deeply) in the comments here termed it “Conclusion first, evidence later”.
It is the nature of serious reporting to dig, to search out the useful and relevant facts of a story, and to pursue with diligence— it can be a good thing to be a bit monomaniacal about something you believe in. Persistence is a good thing, sticking with it in the face of odds is admirable and expected, but…

And this is the big “but”— maintaining your belief in something incredible by discarding every iota of contradictory evidence, especially concerning a matter in which you have no personal expertise, even to the point of disregarding the advice of those who do— that is folly. It is forgivable, or at least understandable as a personal quirk in someone who reads their horoscope in the newspaper, or believes in herbal medicines. It is not something that we as a free people can overlook when committed by a member in good standing of the major media clerisy. When the evidence for a major story can be thoroughly dismembered, and discounted as so much trash and fakery and wishful thinking, and Dan Rather and what was once a major and respected news source can be left like the Emperor, standing in knock-kneed and unseemly nakedness, it is proof that as far as the news business goes the moving finger is indeed moving on. News we can use? It looks like we’ll have to do it ourselves. James Fallows ought to be pleased, at any rate.

And as for major media melt-down, it has happened before, and not all that long ago, either: Big, well-hyped story, fronted by well respected reporter? Check. Undone by
veterans and other experts getting in touch through the internet? Been there. TV producer relying on wishful thinking, dodgy evidence, and discounting every indication to the contrary? Done that.
Only, we get pajamas, instead of a tee-shirt.

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