Sunday, September 12, 2004

Dan Rather is an early casualty in the war over truth in reporting

There is a war under way for truth in reporting and a defiant Dan Rather is about to become one of the first foot soldiers fighting for Big Media to go down. It is quickly becoming common knowledge that Dan Rather and CBS’s 60 Minutes rushed to judgment regarding the authenticity of Texas National Guard documents potentially damaging to President Bush’s reelection campaign. Rather has unapologetically defended the report, seemingly oblivious to the magnitude of his error and the damage it is going to cause CBS. The fact that Americans are more and more concerned about the authenticity and implications of the 60 Minutes report than the content of the documents is evidence that accuracy in reporting is the big story of this election session.

Ten years ago, the 60 Minutes story most likely would have caused its political damage without challenge. Those with legitimate questions over the authenticity of the documents did not have the ability to reach a wide enough mass of people to matter. Information travels so quickly today that, thanks to Matt Drudge, millions of Americans were hours ahead of the major news networks on this story, all wondering loudly through their own outlets (blogs, websites, et al) why no one was reporting this breakthrough.

The battle lines of this very public battle are drawn and the number of casualties is striking and rapidly on the rise. On the offensive are citizens who desire truth in reporting, many of whom are only recently realizing that the media they grew up respecting may not be worthy of their trust. Entrenched and on the defensive are the Dan Rathers of the world – the media elite.

Books exploring bias in the media have repeatedly reached the tops of the charts over the past few years. Websites devoted to debunking misinformation and exposing bias are spouting up every day. The clear majority of Americans no longer trust Big Media to report the truth. Now that there are thousands upon thousands of alternative sources to read and interpret the news, Big Media’s days are numbered.

The fall from grace has been in the works for years, but is accelerating as more people come to understand the power of the Internet for news gathering and fact checking. The NY Times started crumbling under the weight of the Jayson Blair scandal and internal squabbles over the future direction of the grey lady have been embarrassingly public. USA Today has suffered material damage through the exploits of Steven Glass, while hints of deeper troubles within the nation’s most popular newspaper were exposed. The once revered Boston Globe has taken a beating for its similar penchant for publishing falsities. 60 Minutes will never again garner the audience it once enjoyed. Dan Rather is offending millions who will never believe him again. Certainly, lies and distortions have existed since people started reporting the news; but now there is a way to expose cheaters and counter-balance the damage.

In the information age, where news and data flows to tens, thousands, or potentially millions of discerning citizens at the click of a mouse, getting away with a lie is infinitely more challenging than it ever was. Cheats, liars, and media monopolies beware!

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