Politics and Journalism 202
For decades at CBS, Dan Rather has informed us with the news,
amused us with his Texas aphorisms, exhorted us with his curious
benediction of "courage" and, on occasion, puzzled
us — "what is the frequency, Kenneth?" But now
Rather has disappointed us.
In heralding and reporting the discovery of documents that purportedly
confirmed that George W. Bush shirked his Air National Guard
responsibilities, Rather and CBS have failed at a basic journalistic
task. They did not connect the dots. The CBS producers and, ultimately,
Rather could not authenticate the documents.
CBS News might have asked how CBS's top-rated entertainment
show "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" would have handled
the case. Those investigators would have spotted the non-1970's
vintage type font and paper faster than Dan can say, "This
Rather, after first standing by the CBS report, acknowledged
the error in judgment in airing the story. That, at least, is
what he should have done. Yet lurking behind the admission is
the question, might CBS have been too eager to leap to a conclusion?
To those who, in their estimation, already had Rather pegged
as a liberal Bush basher, this was just added evidence. A connection
between a CBS producer and the Democratic party did not help.
The fumble on CBS' part also does not help other journalists
assert their impartiality.
Perception is paramount. We tell politicians that all the time.
It's our nature to believe what we want to believe, and journalists
are not held in the highest esteem these days. But journalism
educators may thank Dan, anyhow, for a teachable moment.
Connect the dots. Are there gaps in the story? Can you fill
them in? Is what you don't know essential to the report? To paraphrase
O. J. Simpson's attorney Johnny Cochran: If the dots don't connect,
you must reject!
It's a curious political season. We're caught in a time warp
where the country is fighting a war in Iraq, yet still politically
fighting over Vietnam. The focus on where George Bush and John
Kerry were thirty years ago has eclipsed the prospect of where
each might lead the country in 2005. Historical perspective is
not unimportant, but the campaign has been hijacked by vociferous
peripheral elements—the 527 advocacy groups. The campaigns,
the media and the public are distracted, some perhaps willingly.
In 2004, I'm watching the presidential campaign from a different—and
distant—perspective. From 1984 through 2000, I saw the
campaigns up close as a CNN political correspondent. From the
primaries to the conventions to election day, I was on the trail
with the candidates. In 2000, I had the added and unique perspective
of covering the U.S. Supreme Court when its split decision in
Bush v. Gore effectively ended the Florida recount, leaving Bush
I was one of those court correspondents running out into the
bitter cold night of December 12, with the red-hot 65-page court
opinion. "Let's go through this carefully, Bernie," I
said to CNN anchor Bernard Shaw. And for the next two-and-a-half
hours we dissected the opinion live on the air.
In contrast, the broadcast networks provided only three hours
live coverage to each of the party conventions this summer. True,
these conventions are more highly choreographed coronations than
the Miss America pageant. It's been decades since the conventions
held much drama—multiple ballots, a floor fight over credentials
or the party platform. But the networks had predetermined one
night of each four-day convention would be worth no coverage
The conventions seen at home are not as I used to see them from
my podium reporting position. There I could hear all the speeches,
or at least the ones I chose to hear. The party leaders were
within arm's reach or earshot. I could bat the balloons with
You could barely get that breadth at home. Only C-Span provided
gavel-to-gavel coverage. Even my former colleagues at CNN have
swapped gavel-to-gavel for babble-to-babble. Still, there were
more journalists than delegates at the conventions. Despite the
shortcomings of television coverage, there were innovative approaches
to bring political perspective to the electorate.
We had a hand in one such, the Cingular Wireless Election Connection.
USC journalism students used camera phones provided by our Newsplex
technology partner Cingular and text messaging to transmit hundreds
of vignettes of events in and out of the Boston and New York
convention sites. Back at Newsplex in Columbia, faculty and grad
students transformed those reports to a mobile web log—a "moblog"—and
produced a mosaic of what the student reporters from USC and
other communications programs had observed.
You'll find the Wireless Election Connection at http://wec.textamerica.com.
Our new director of the Ifra Newsplex Randy Covington led this
project. Our students and Newsplex team will produce another
edition of the moblog for election day in November.
As the relationship of media and politics evolves, the challenge
is to have meaningful communication that enlightens the electorate.
And as Dan Rather has reminded us, in journalism the challenge
is always to get it right.