The ordeal of Dan Rather goes far beyond the man himself. It speaks to the presumption of guilt that now rules the day in America. Because of a ruthless and callow media, no citizen, much less one who achieves fame, is given the benefit of the doubt when it comes to allegations or personal attacks. The smearing of America is in full bloom.
Weeks before the election, Kitty Kelley put out a book defaming the entire Bush family. The allegations were primarily made by anonymous people, but that didn't stop the media from gleefully recounting all the sordid accusations. Some newspapers even put them on Page one.
That smear came on the heels of the "Swift Boat" attacks on John Kerry, an ordeal that may have cost Kerry the election. While some of the Vietnam Vets had valid points, more than a few of the accusations against Kerry were simply untrue. It didn't matter though, Kerry's war record became a negative.
Right-wing talk radio, in particular, pounded Kerry and also bludgeoned Dan Rather for his role in another smear incident the charges against George W. Bush vis-a-vis his National Guard service. Again, Rather was found guilty without a fair hearing. Charges that he intentionally approved bogus documents that made President Bush look bad were leveled and widely believed. It was chilling.
As a CBS News correspondent in the early '80s, I worked with Rather and have known him for more than 20 years. Listen to me: There is no way on this earth that he would have knowingly used fake documents on any story. It may be true that Rather did not vet the information supplied to him by producers, but few anchor people do. They are dependent on other journalists, and this is a huge flaw in the system.
Dan Rather is guilty of not being skeptical enough about a story that was politically loaded. I believe Rather, along with Andy Rooney, Walter Cronkite and other guardsmen of the old CBS News, are liberal in their thinking. That is certainly a legitimate debate; how for years CBS News has taken a rather, pardon the pun, progressive outlook. But holding a political point of view is the right of every American, and it does not entitle people to practice character assassination or deny the presumption of innocence. Dan Rather was slimed. It was disgraceful.
But you'll be seeing more of this kind of thing in the future. All famous and successful Americans are now targets. Unscrupulous people know that any accusation can be dumped on the Internet and within hours the mainstream media will pick it up. It will be printed in the papers, discussed on radio and TV, and will become part of the unfortunate person's resume whether he or she is guilty or not. A click of the Internet mouse can wipe out a lifetime of honor and hard work. Just the accusation or allegation can be ruinous. Let me ask you something: In the future, do you think potential public servants and social crusaders are going to risk being brutally attacked within this insane system? I don't. I think many good people are simply going to walk away from the public arena.
Dan Rather did not get what he deserved in this case. He made a mistake, as we all do, but he is not a dishonest man. Unfair freedom of speech did him in. This is not your grandfather's country anymore.
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JWR contributor Bill O'Reilly is host of the
Fox News show, "The O'Reilly Factor," and author
of, most recently, "Who's Looking Out for You?" Comments by clicking here.