2004 should be remembered as the year when the nation's media elite were so committed to the goal of turning President Bush out of office that some were willing to sacrifice their own reputations for it. Their supposed commitment to fairness and balance evaporated in the public mind.
It was a tough year for judges of the Media Research Center's "Best of Notable Quotables" competition for the year's worst reporting. They were confronted with an embarrassment of riches.
The year's biggest media disaster was Dan Rather's use of phony "government documents" showing that George W. Bush disobeyed orders in the Texas Air National Guard.
In the "Captain Dan the Forgery Man Award" category, the worst quote came in a sidewalk exchange with reporters on September 10, days after the scandalous story ran. The entire world knew by now that the story was a fake, but Rather was still spinning pointlessly: "The story is true. The story is true....I appreciate the sources who took risks to authenticate our story. So, one, there is no internal investigation. Two, somebody may be shell-shocked, but it is not I, and it is not anybody at CBS News. Now, you can tell who is shell-shocked by the ferocity of the people who are spreading these rumors." One assumes Rather finally arrived at shock when he was urged to retire by CBS.
By contrast, when William F. Buckley Jr. retired (willingly) from his long, distinguished career leading conservatives to greater contemplation through National Review, the New York Times just had to take some final cheap shots. Deborah Solomon of the New York Times Magazine won the "Damn Those Conservatives Award" for asking obnoxious questions such as: "You have made so many offensive comments over the years. Do you regret any of them?" And: "You seem indifferent to suffering. Have you ever suffered yourself?" One can presume to read Mr. Buckley's mind's response: "I'm suffering through this interview, aren't I?"
With Tom Brokaw, Dan Rather, and Bill Moyers all promising to step away from the news-making machinery, a new generation of highly biased cable news hosts are volunteering to take their place. At CNN, there is Aaron Brown, who found a way to pine for the dashed fantasy of President Kerry as he perused a copy of the military newspaper Stars and Stripes on the air, displaying a front-page photo of U. S. troops receiving medals: "Look at this picture here, if you can. 'Troops' Bravery Honored in Iraq.' These are all Purple Heart winners. Some day, one of them will run for President and someone will say they didn't earn the Purple Heart. Welcome to America."
Then there's MSNBC, otherwise known as the network no one watches, where judges could catch up on the TV they missed with the "Kooky Keith Award (for Keith Olbermann's Conspiratorial Rants)." The winner in this all-Olbermann category came in April, as the anchor celebrated a new book from old Nixon crony John Dean by describing how Bush is an emerging despot: "The feeling that I had been left after reading 'Worse Than Watergate' was that this could have been the historical, essentially, prequel to George Orwell's novel 1984, that if you wanted to see what the very first step out of maybe 50 steps towards this totalitarian state that Orwell wrote about in his novel, this [Bush's policies] would be the kind of thing that you would see."
And Olbermann wonders why he has no audience.
Another Washington Post TV critic Tom Shales won the "Media Hero Award" for hailing his hero, Sen. Ted Kennedy. Reviewing the Senator's cranky reactions to Bush's State of the Union address, Shales warmly contended that "Kennedy has now reached a grand moment in the life of a senator; he looks like Hollywood itself cast him in the role. Seriously....Kennedy looked great, like he was ready to take his place next to Jefferson on Mount Rushmore." Perhaps they ought to just put a nice stately bust up next to the bridge at Chappaquiddick.
Months before the self-destruction of Rathergate, Dan Rather made another declaration so outrageous the judges chose it as their Quote of the Year. On the day four American civilian contractors were killed and their burned remains left dangling from a bridge in Fallujah, Rather asked: "What drives American civilians to risk death in Iraq? In this economy it may be, for some, the only job they can find."
What laughable media foolishness. But it sobers you to realize our objective news media will be back, saying these crazy things again in some form or fashion in 2005.