Monday, September 20, 2004

CJR's Bad Medicine

If it's Monday, it must be time to look in on the Columbia Journalism Review's Campaign Desk.

If you're an amateur media critic, you might have noticed this little story lurking around today. It seems that 12 days ago CBS News aired a piece attacking the president of the United States--weeks before an election--with documents that looked as though they were forged. As reporters and amateur media critics delved into the story, it turned out that the documents really were forged.

Professional media critics, however, need have higher standards. They don't go rushing off willy-nilly and jumping to conclusions based on incomplete evidence. As Steve Lovelady, the managing editor of CJR's Campaign Desk--and a truer professional there never was--said last week, "We're not in the business of saying, 'You may be a bad boy; drink your medicine.' We're in the business of saying 'You are a bad boy; drink your medicine.' And, as of this moment, despite the flurry of charges and counter-charges, it's not clear whether CBS has been had by some undercover operative intent on smearing the president, or whether the network itself is the victim of a smear campaign."

Well. This morning there was this teensy-tiny development in the CBS News story. Dan Rather came out and admitted that CBS no longer stands by the forged documents and believes that the network has been "misled."

It's medicine time at CJR, baby!

Only not quite. CJR has posted three items so far today. The CBS story is mentioned once. Here is the mention in its entirety: "And Scrappleface seems to be offering his own none-too-subtle advice--to CBS, specifically--in the form of 'breaking news' about RatherGate. Seems Scrapple has the inside line on what Rather will say on air this evening--including that Rather will 'during the broadcast . . . demand his own resignation, along with that of news producer Mary Mapes.' That's one we haven't run across before--"I demand my own resignation!'"

Some medicine, evidently, is stronger than others.

Mind you, Steve Lovelady, professional media critic, hasn't been entirely silent. Last Friday he sent a letter-to-the-editor to another professional media critic website--Jim Romenesko's Media News. It seems that Lovelady doesn't think the CBS story is a very big deal at all. He wrote:

And as for a relative ranking of "big media stories of recent memory"--is the CBS episode of the magnitude of, say, Jayson Blair deceiving the readers of the New York Times not once, but dozens of times, month after month? Or as big as Jack Kelly deceiving the readers of USA Today not once, but apparently hundreds of times for years on end? Or as big as the systemic failure of the mainstream press to question the fatally flawed rationale for war in the months leading up to the invasion of Iraq? Or even as big as the press's inexplicable delay before it finally began investigating the veracity, or lack thereof, of the charges leveled at John Kerry by the swift boat veterans? . . .

But come on, guys--try to get a grip. It's not Watergate. It's not even Rathergate. So far, it's no more than Fontgate.

Now don't you silly amateurs feel stupid?

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