The “Rathergate” Incident: Remembering Why Separation of Press and State Is Vital

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Should government police the quality and integrity of televisionjournalism? That question has come to the fore recently as membersof Congress consider investigating Dan Rather and CBS News'admission that they relied on questionable documents in a reportcritical of President Bush's military service record. Thecontroversy-now referred to as "Rathergate" by many-has led some Republicans in Congress to suggestthat hearings are needed into this matter. Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX),chairman of the House Commerce Committee, originally rejected suchcalls, but has apparently relented and now says that hearings willlikely occur sometime after the presidential election.

What's wrong with that? Nothing, if you live in Russia.Government investigations or intrusions into the newsgatheringbusiness are routine in countries like Russia, which has never heldthe separation of press and state to be inviolable. While nojournalist in America will go to jail or lose the right to reportbecause of the Rathergate incident, the idea of Congressinvestigating newsgathering scandals is troubling because it couldhave a subtle but real chilling effect on reporting.

While some lawmakers will label this a simple effort to "get tothe bottom" of a colossal journalistic blunder, who says that's anyof their business to begin with? The First Amendment was prettyclear about Congress not making any laws abridging the freedom ofthe press and, by extension, lawmakers have no right poking theirnoses into the way the press does business, even when they screw upas badly as Rather and CBS News have in this case.

Checks and Balances on Media. Importantly, thiscontroversy has shown the remarkable effectiveness of media topolice itself and, in particular, the ability of new media outletsto act as a check on the old guard. Dan Rather's original 60Minutes II report wasn't even a few hours old before manyInternet websites and independent web blogs were buzzing with critical commentary.Soon, the trickle of online criticism turned into a flood, andeveryone was debating the issue online, on the radio, on cable andsatellite TV, in newspapers and magazines, and, eventually, even onCBS itself. The amazing diversityof modern media outlets has allowed investigative journalism tobecome a full-time sport and given the media unprecedented abilityto police itself. The credibility of Rather and CBS News has beendamaged potentially beyond repair because of such scrutiny andcriticism.

Consider, by contrast, how this incident might have played outthirty years ago when just three networks dominated television newsand no cable, satellite, or online outlets were available.Newspaper and magazine journalists were the most reliable (andperhaps only) check on suspect reporting by TV news organizationsat the time. But many errors were probably never caught. Today,thanks to the relentless march of new communications and mediatechnologies, citizens have access to hundreds of other outlets andcan, on occasion, even help break news themselves. This is a trulyremarkable development that many in government still fail toappreciate, but it has ushered in a veritable revolution in the waynews is gathered, delivered-and as we see with the Rathergatecontroversy-reviewed and verified.

It is unlikely that any other society has ever had such adiversity of checks and balances in place to guard againstmisrepresentations or misreporting of the facts. Indeed, what ismost remarkable about the Rathergate controversy is its duration.Rather and CBS admitted their mistake just 11 days after theoriginal report aired. Thirty years ago, it would have likely takenmuch longer for the facts to surface, if they did at all.

The Never-ending Game of Congressional MediaBashing. Still, some members of Congress and even thegeneral public will be hungry for a more "official" investigationinto the matter if for no other reason than to stick it to Rather,CBS, and the media in general. Media bashing is an old sport formany members of Congress, who constantly deride what they regard asbiased reporting or objectionable content. And 2004 has been abanner year for those in Congress and at the Federal CommunicationsCommission who have been hungry for a renewed censorship crusade.Legislation to increase finesfor "indecent" content and "excessively violent" programming ispending in Congress. And the FCC has stepped up censorship efforts under pressurefrom Congress.

The Rathergate incident plays right into the hands of those whowant to take another shot at "cracking down" on the media. Whilemost members of Congress realize that the First Amendment limitstheir ability to directly censor media, they have become skilled atthe art of "regulation by raised eyebrow." Sometimes just hauling afew people before a congressional committee and haranguing them isenough to send a message: if you don't play ball with Congress andchange what you air, you might end up facing regulation on someother part of your business, like media ownership controls orre-imposition of the FairnessDoctrine.

Such indirect forms of censorship through regulatory blackmailare every bit as insidious as direct forms of regulation. In theRathergate case, even if some members of Congress say they justwant to "get to the bottom" of the incident, we must not allow thewall between press and state to be breached. It could open the doorto subtle forms of censorship and result in a loss of press freedomand independence.

Congress must resist the temptation to sit in judgment of mediaperformance precisely because public officials are armed with thecoercive power of government. While journalists are supposed toplay a watchdog role and serve as independent check on publicabuses and errors by public officials, the reverse is mostdefinitely not the case.