ETA: WSJ wants people to register to read the thing, so I'm going to be a bad girl and just put it here.
On Feb. 12, 1996, I picked up a phone at CBS News in New York and called Dan Rather, who was in Des Moines covering the Iowa caucuses. It was a call that I--then a CBS correspondent--wasn't anxious to make. I'd written an op-ed for this page about liberal bias in the news that was going to run the next day. I knew I had to give Dan a heads up. "I wrote a piece for the Journal, Dan, and my guess is you won't be ecstatic about it." I hadn't given him any details yet, so he had no idea what the op-ed was about. Dan was gracious; he always was when we spoke. "Bernie," he said, "we were friends yesterday, we're friends today, and we'll be friends tomorrow. So tell me about it."
I did, and the more I told him the more tense the conversation got. After listening for a while, Dan told me, "I'm getting viscerally angry about this" and the call soon ended. And then the man who was my friend yesterday, today, and tomorrow told a number of our colleagues that he'd "never" forgive me for what I'd done.
What I'd done was not simply to say that there really was a problem with liberal bias in the news (if it matters, I'd never voted Republican in my life), I'd also broken a taboo, doing what no mainstream journalist (to my knowledge) had ever done: I'd given ammo to "the enemy" by very publicly saying, in effect, that the conservatives had been right all along.
As if that weren't bad enough, it was becoming apparent that by writing about bias, which Mr. Rather over the years had repeatedly said was a phony issue, I had (at least in his mind) also called into question the thing he holds most sacred--his integrity. That wasn't my intent. I was just writing about bias in the news, not about Dan Rather. But if Dan thinks his reputation has been attacked, understandably, he gets hotter than an armadillo at a Fourth of July picnic, as you know who might put it.
That's why in the midst of this Bush memo scandal, you have to wonder: Now that Dan's credibility really is taking a beating, why won't he blow the whistle on his source, the one who slipped him the documents that almost certainly are fraudulent and got him into this mess?
He doesn't have to give us the guy's name and address, just tell us what motivated him to leak the documents to CBS News. It's a common journalistic practice, after all, to shed as much light on an unnamed source as possible. That's why we often read "a source close to the administration" or "a police source involved in the investigation" said such and such. No name. But enough info so the news consumer understands, as they say, where the source is coming from. In the case of the leaked memos, does the source have any connection to the Democrats? How about the Kerry campaign? If Dan told us that, he'd still be faithful to his source, but at least as importantly, he'd be showing good faith to his viewers by giving them a clue as to the source's motives, whatever they might be.
Instead, Dan and CBS News do what they'd never tolerate in a crooked politician: They circle the wagons. First we get a statement about how there's no internal investigation going on at CBS; then we get a bunch of stories by CBS News backing up the original "60 Minutes" piece that are so one-sided they'd get a junior-high journalism student an "F" for lack of balance; then on "60 Minutes" we did get a former secretary, "a credible voice" as Dan Rather put it, who told him that "she believes the documents we obtained are not authentic. But . . . she told us she believes what the documents actually say is exactly as we reported." Put plainly: The memos may be fake, but "We stand by our story."
We're the ones who have a right to be angry with CBS News, but it turns out that Dan Rather is the one who's really fuming. Not at the source who got him into all of this, but at those "partisans" who are fanning the flames. The Washington Post quotes him as saying: "I don't cave when the pressure gets too great from these partisan political forces." He's absolutely right that some of his critics are partisans. But how about Dan's source? Is he also a partisan?
Now it's possible that the mystery man (or woman) is someone who lives in Denmark or Tibet and somehow got his hands on genuine documents that make the president look bad in the middle of a race that might turn out to be tighter than the rusted lug nuts on a '54 Chevy. But I doubt it. I'm betting he lives a lot closer to home, and, who knows, he might indeed turn out to be a "partisan political force" himself. And this is precisely Dan's problem. This is why, I suspect, he isn't coming clean, despite the damage to his reputation. Because Dan Rather may be protecting not just his source, but himself; because, if the source turns out to be a partisan, then Dan wasn't just taken for a ride, but may have been a willing passenger.
And then Dan, and CBS News, can kiss their reputations goodbye.