Remember when you believed what they said on the evening news? Perhaps you never did, of course perhaps you were one of those people who threw shoes at the tube every time Eric Sevareid ended a show without unmasking the perils of fluoridation. Most people, however, had a loose and unexamined trust in the evening news. Here comes Uncle Walt down from the mount with the daily tablets: That's the Way It Is.
Over the years, though, you noticed that the news seemed a little predictable. Big Washington News usually led the first segment, unless a hurricane or plane crash rudely upstaged the efforts of our thankless solons. Then a smattering of international news an earthquake, a coup in one of those big, indistinct African nations, a bus off a cliff in India or a ferry sunk off Thailand. (If ever a bus flew off a cliff and hit a ferry, that might lead the news, if there were enough Western tourists aboard.)
Then part three of a weeklong thumb-sucker, usually concerning some Troubling Development in Flyover Land a new drug addling dissolute youth in disaffected rural communities, the impact of the bison renaissance on the red-stippled jumping mouse.
Then finally, a heartwarming tale about a girl and her pony. If you could find a little girl who used her pony to bring Indian bus-crash victims to America to push through a Senate resolution defending the jumping rat, you'd have the best network TV news show ever.
Why, in retrospect, did we watch for so long? Credibility, perhaps. While one may have detected the occasional whiff of liberal bias and by "whiff" we mean "having an orchid rammed up your nose" at least they didn't make stuff up or let their biases run them off the rails completely. Until the memos about President Bush's National Guard service dropped in their laps.
Then it all came apart. Dan Rather offered up no substantive proof in the days after the memos were questioned, preferring to rely on unnamed mysterious experts who would presumably burst into flames if exposed to daylight; he blamed those pesky right-wing nuts on the Internet who presume to think that 20 years of experience in digital type makes them more of an expert than a man who's been reading the same old teleprompter font for 20 years. People need to know if their anchorman is a crook, Rather seemed to be saying. Well, I am not a crook.
While the Nixonian stonewalling is telling enough, something else makes you wonder whether the Tiffany network is studded with cubic zirconiums. Yes, it's possible that the memos are genuine. It's possible that a nuclear-powered 1972 Univac Selecto-Composer was able to download font technology from the future, and it's possible that a non-typist like Lt. Col. Jerry B. Killian would spend a weekend afternoon crafting personal memos on such a beast. "Won't be home for supper, hon I blew out 40 vacuum tubes trying to auto-wrap the first sentence. I'm gonna be here all night." It's possible.
But it's more likely that the memos are not just forgeries, but exceptionally bad ones. It takes a twentysomething clueless about the past to think that 1970s memos looked like a modern-day Word document. This is why some suspect that Dark Lord Karl Rove himself planted the memos, and his cloven hooves are dancing a jig over the mischief he's caused. If these hadn't worked, the next batch would note, "Tried to get Bush on cell phone, no luck," just in case no one picked up on the other anachronisms.
How could CBS buy such a crock? Surely someone must have wondered why the visual style of the documents was so minty-fresh. Surely someone recalled the old days of Selectrics or Royal manuals. Why, it's almost as if they ran spurious documents because they thought it proved a greater truth.
Of course, this would have been the first time they did that.
Somebody has to fall on his sword. But who to push? It's obvious; CBS needs to regain not just the trust of America, but its goodwill. Note to CBS: Blame it all on Andy Rooney and announce his retirement.
A grateful nation will be yours.
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JWR contributor James Lileks is a columnist for the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Comment by clicking here.