Monday's Washington Post op-ed page has a debate of sorts between Post columnists on the Dan Rather lawsuit against CBS. Eugene Robinson takes up the pro-Rather side, barely acknowledging Rather's phony documents en route to suggesting Rather "makes a valid argument about the larger issue," that CBS was cowardly in defending the story because corporations don't challenge the government like they used to, as in the golden days of the "Pentagon Papers." Recent experience doesn't exactly suggest the media is unwilling to expose national-security programs the ACLU wants exposed.
The anti-Rather side is taken up by Charles Lane, who's not buying any of Rather's bluster. (For the record, Lane was editor of The New Republic when Stephen Glass loaded that magazine with phony quotes and stories, so that either makes him the voice of experience, or a strange scold.) But his fake letter of Rather's is definitely fun to read:
"Dear CBS News:
"My new career at HDNet is keeping me busier than a bordello at Mardis Gras.
"But I did want to take a moment to thank you for your kindness and consideration during my 44 years as the finest broadcast journalist any network ever had.
"Let's face it. At times I did or said things that some people, most of them partisan political operatives, considered unbecoming, ridiculous or even 'firing offenses.'
"In 1987, I walked off the set of the evening news, leaving you to fill several minutes of dead air, because you delayed the news to finish coverage of the U.S. Open tennis tournament. That came back to haunt us the next year, when then-Vice President George H.W. Bush mocked me about it. But you stood by me.
"In 2001, I accidentally gave a speech at a Democratic Party fundraiser in Austin. Later, I realized that some powerful and extremely well-financed forces think that journalists shouldn't help political parties raise money. For a minute there, the issue got hotter than a hamburger on a hickory fire. You guys put out a statement calling it an 'honest oversight,' and we rode it out together. Thanks.
"But what really made me gratefuller than a Pilgrim in November was the way CBS News handled my Sept. 8, 2004, broadcast of those fake documents -- you know, the ones that said President Bush finagled his way into the Texas Air National Guard during Vietnam and then skipped a Guard physical, etc., etc.
"You guys stood by me, and the report, until it became impossible to deny that it was a whopper, and then you let me make a dignified exit from 'CBS Evening News' several months later.
"Until I left the network in June 2006, you kept paying me a $6 million salary, even though I wasn't really doing much work.
"The nicest part, though -- the part that shows you are more compassionate than Mother Teresa in a 12-story leper colony -- is that after I apologized for the bogus report, you asked me to keep my mouth shut about it, even though I was itching to retract the apology.
"Thank you, CBS, thank you for saving me from myself.
Lane then whimsically states that the lawsuit must be a forgery, because who could be this crazy?
No man in Rather's position would admit that he could be made to apologize for a story he believed was true. A straight-shooting newsman like Dan Rather would have resigned rather than obey an order to lie to the public.
No sensible person would allege that CBS's investigation of the National Guard story was both hopelessly biased because it was led by George H.W. Bush's former attorney general and that the investigation "exonerated" Rather.
No sane individual would start a legal battle that could result in his being deposed under oath about his own conduct at the network over 44 rocky years.
Finally, no one in his right mind would keep insisting that those phony documents are real and that the Bush National Guard story is true.
If there's one thing we've learned about Dan Rather, it is that he's a perfectly reasonable guy. Otherwise, CBS News would never have put him in the anchor's chair in the first place. And he sat there for 24 years.