Say you need to lose weight. So when you go out to lunch with a friend, you order a Diet Coke. The waitress brings you your drink and with the first sip you're not totally sure that it's Diet Coke, with zero calories; you think it may be regular sugar-laden Coke, with 100 calories. So you ask your companion, who tastes it and says, "Nope, that's not Diet Coke." This gets your back up. By God, you ordered Diet Coke, and the waitress wrote it down. Your intentions were honorable. Therefore, what you're drinking is Diet Coke, with zero calories, you say, and you chug it down. The End.
As anyone who has ever been on a diet can attest, honorable intentions don't count; what counts is what actually goes into your body. And we can also attest that in the great scheme of things, 100 calories here or there does not break a diet. Self-deception, however, surely will. And from here--in a gigantic leap--we get to Dan Rather vs. CBS.
Okay, stick with me here. Start out with a basic, underlying premise. All the evidence shows that you are, in fact overweight. Similarly, the evidence we have--in a story first broken in early September 2004 by the Boston Globe--shows that George W. Bush did weasel out of his National Guard duty during the Vietnam War.
At the restaurant, you intend to order Diet Coke. Similarly, Dan Rather and CBS, I'm sure, started out with the intention to report honestly and advance the Globe story.
In the larger scheme of things, 100 calories more or less doesn't really matter. And, in the larger scheme of things, the story that CBS aired in September 2004 didn't really advance the Globe's story all that much. At best, it would have filled in a few details--a fact that all the hype has managed to obscure.
Anyway, you get your order--but is it really Diet Coke? Your companions taste it and say no. But you point to the order the waitress wrote down: it says right here, "Diet Coke." That's your story, and you're sticking to it. Likewise, Dan Rather says now that those "never-before-seen memos" that CBS based its story are real, goddamn it, and that everything they say did, in fact, actually happen. But your companion points out that just because it says "Diet Coke" in the waitress's handwriting, it doesn't prove you actually had Diet Coke. Likewise, informed observers who have looked at those much-hyped memos have concluded that they don't prove anything either, and in fact are probably forgeries. Does anybody think at this point: what difference does all of this make? Heck, no! What happens next is an eye-gouging, hair-pulling barroom brawl over issues of personal integrity and the authenticity of a piece of documentation. What fun!
What we have here, on all fronts, is a massive case of myopia. Just as most of us like to believe that we're eating a healthy diet and that we're not really overweight, statistics and mirrors be damned, Dan Rather continues to insist that those memos are authentic. My media brethren, meanwhile, are obsessed with those pieces of paper--what they mean, whether it can be proved, the motive behind Rather's lawsuit, the odds on whether CBS will settle, the titillating facts that might come out if it doesn't, and so on.
The larger point here, which the mainstream media and the blogging world alike seem to have forgotten, is that we have a wartime Commander in Chief who has no trouble sending tens of thousands of young Americans into harm's way into Iraq under dubious pretenses--but who, when it was his own turn to serve his country, couldn't be bothered.
The media's delusion here is that the Dan Rather controversy is an earth-shattering deal. It's not. It has little significance except as a cautionary tale of sloppy journalism and the immense, some might say outsized, value that one of the exemplars of mainstream journalism places on his personal reputation--including, so help me God, his reputation as "the most experienced reporter in the United States in covering hurricanes" (p. 23 of the complaint). (It's clearly a painful thing, losing one's exalted place in the old-media hierarchy). No, the real story here, brought to light by a few diligent journalists who did follow the rules of good journalism, is the character of our President. That's something history will be judging for a very long time--and if we all can't figure that out, we're in more trouble than I thought.