When it comes to attempting to justify your journalism, a shamed newsman is not your best point of comparison.
For most Americans, Dan Rather could be resting in a number of positions on the character scale – from a shame of an otherwise established career, all the way down to being a fabulist, if not an outright liar. For the most part, though there remains a negative connotation for the former newsman – with journalists being the exception.
For some reason, the people who should have the most discerning opinion on matters of their profession seem to possess the most sympathy towards the actions of Dan Rather. The man who pushed falsified documents in order to impugn the career and character of George Bush has support to this day in the media landscape. So while he is scorched almost daily on social media over his prevarication, Rather is given far lighter criticism from his contemporaries, and this leads to a rather myopic approach by Rachel Maddow.
In a Vanity Fair profile that is centered on the next phase of her career, Joe Pompeo was willing to invoke the most glaring aspect of her past phase – her lengthy, almost nightly, focus on Donald Trump and the Russian collusion non-scandal. The linchpin of that was, infamously, the decried Steele dossier, and that now disproven document was the basis of the vacuous contention that Trump worked in conjunction with the Soviets to win the 2016 election.
Maddow still clings to contentions of validity, probably the result of having built up so much faith in the storyline, and in effect built up her own import along the way. The years-long storyline established Maddow herself as a valid left-wing voice and as a result the only competitive presence to FoxNews in primetime news. So her acknowledging the disproven nature of it all would completely undermine her level of credibility.
Her choice of defense, however, is at issue here. She chooses, curiously, a comparative incident that today is regarded as a glaring example of journalistic malpractice.
As Pompeo brings up the topic of the collusion storyline – suggesting it delivered a sense of false hope, and even daring to compare it to Newsmax coverage of the 2020 election – Maddow decided to invoke Rather’s infamous issue as she embarks on rewriting history. Doing so in order to accuse others of reinterpreting reality makes this all the more precious.
“Do you remember what the Dan Rather scandal was about?” she said, referring to a 2004 controversy in which the legendary newsman’s career came to a screeching halt over a 60 Minutes segment based on allegedly forged documents that CBS News failed to authenticate.
Pompeo delivers all of the journalistic sympathies that still reside for Rather with his use of “allegedly” here. It carries the implication that CBS may have wrongly terminated the celebrated career of Rather over disputed details. That the documents alleged to have been drawn up in the early 1970s were made using fonts and formatting only seen in Microsoft Word programs from the 2000s are not a consideration of proof. “Allegedly” still remains, possibly as a way of propping up Maddow’s shaky defense.
The story of George W. Bush getting a sweet gig in the National Guard so he didn’t have to go fight in Vietnam was true. Somebody giving Dan Rather a forged document, so he had a screwed-up news story about it, is fascinating, and it’s an interesting thing about CBS News. But it doesn’t mean that the National Guard thing about George W. Bush was not true! It just—it neutralized it. Like it made that go away. And the whole thing became a Dan Rather scandal. That’s what’s going on with the dossier.”
So she is beginning with the all-too-common rejoinder from media elites in these instances – the risible trope of “false, but accurate.” But there are a few issues with her attempt at legitimacy. The story of George Bush being in the National Guard was never a mystery. It was known he was a pilot there in those years. Rather was claiming to have found proof of influence that moved him to that branch of service, rather than being placed on active duty abroad.
Maddow’s Steele dossier insistence was the basis of the entire story. Remove Rather’s doctored docs and George Bush is still flying jets domestically. Delete the dossier, however, and Maddow is left with nothing but vapor. She also elides the detail that, absent Rather’s hard proof of power wrangling placing Bush in The Guard, the controversy was not at all evident. But this still mystifies for one simple reason.
Maddow wants to attach her prior insistence on a document she now equates with another that is widely accepted as fraudulent (save for select journalists). Her attempt is to say, “That document was false, but the story was not,” except without it there is no real story. In her case, the document WAS the story. Unlike Bush’s service, Trump’s teaming with the Russians is not tangible unless the Steele dossier is valid. The Mueller investigation disproved collusion, and it barely even rested on the Steele dossier.
That Rachel’s beloved document has since become entirely invalidated means she needs to now rearrange the missing facts to fit a new narrative. Resting on the laurels of another completely obliterated document and shamed journalist in order to recast her storyline does not help her cause – it underscores the vacancy of her journalism.
Rather presented a single report, and he was chased off when its core was disproven. Rachel has spent years pushing her story. She cannot admit to its lack of foundation, and so – just like Rather – she needs to maintain there is an amount of validity, in order to maintain relevancy.