Dan Rather, who knows a thing or two about fake news, shares tips for news consumers

Former CBS anchor Dan Rather knows all about the pitfalls of fake news.

Once upon a time in 2004, he ran a national story that hinged on photocopies of documents dated in the 1970s, formatted using proportional spacing, curly apostrophes, and several other formatting options that were not available on office typewriters in the 1970s but all matched the default settings of MS-Word. When bloggers pushed back against the story, he and other CBS decision-makers dug in their heels, refusing to accept that amateurs blogging from home in their pajamas had made a valid point about gaping holes in the professional story. (Bloggers drive hoax probe into Bush memos.)

Among the prominent critiques of Bush in 2004 included that he was a chicken hawk whose service in the Air National Guard was not “real” military service, and thus did not qualify him to order military interventions as president. The timely “new” memos casting further shade on his service so perfectly fit the criticisms leveled against him that Rather and his team went with the story without getting the documents authenticated. They broke the story on the East Coast airing of 60 Minutes II, but by the time the story aired again on the West Coast, bloggers were all over it. 

At the time, I wrote:

A blog is the perfect vehicle for an analysis of a complex document, since you can actually link to the document and let your readers inspect it yourself. While an online version of a story written for another media may offer the same service, typically reporters are trained to summarize for the benefit of the masses. Most readers won’t take the time to check original sources, but bloggers are already used to writing for small audiences of highly committed readers. Throwing in a link that would only be of interest to a handful of obsessive readers (who might also be bloggers) helps perpetuate a line of inquiry that the traditional media might not continue.

After stubbornly telling the bloggers to get off his lawn, Rather eventually ended up retracting the story, but the damage had been done — not only to his career, but also the genre of mainstream TV journalism.

Rather, who had 44 years of experience with CBS, happened to be working as a local reporter in Dallas when John F. Kennedy was assassinated. He has a long career of successful journalism, and lately has been very outspoken in his criticism of Trump’s attacks on journalism.

If you want to use Rather’s Memogate fiasco to complain about lamestream media, go ahead — but note that Rather’s mistake had consequences, including the ignominious ousting of public face of CBS News (who later filed, and lost, a $70million lawsuit against his former employer).

So I’m not being facetious when I say Rather knows about fake news, and I’m not being cynical when I present his media trust manifesto.

  1. Understand that trusting a news outlet doesn’t mean they’re perfect — no one’s perfect. It means they tell you when they screw up.
  2. Don’t rely on just one news outlet.
  3. Don’t rely on just the news to understand an issue. Read books. Find the experts. Find out how the issues are discussed outside of news.
  4. If you find yourself agreeing with everything your news outlet says, you’re doing it wrong. If your news doesn’t challenge you, challenge your news.
  5. Find a commentator whose politics differ from yours … If you can’t find such a person, maybe the media is not the problem.
  6. Remember that what the news tells you is far less important than what they decide to talk about in the first place.

Rather concludes:

“The true test of trustworthy journalism isn’t that they never make mistakes. It’s whether they’re willing to challenge the powers that be on behalf of those without power.”