Liar Liar, Pants on Fire

closePlease note: This post was published over a year ago, so please be aware that its content may not be quite so accurate anymore. Also, the format of the site has changed since it was published, so please excuse any formatting issues.

Dick Cheney is a liar. Not only is he a liar, he’s an idiot. During the VP debate, he advised viewers interested in his version of the facts about Halliburton to visit factcheck.com. Trouble is, factcheck dot COM redirects you to GeorgeSoros.com which contains arguments on “why we must not re-elect President George Bush.” What he probably meant to say was factcheck dot ORG, a site run by the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania. Interestingly enough, Soros and Co. had nothing to do with factcheck.com pointing to their site.

For a long time now, I’ve suspected that President Bush wears an earpiece when making public speeches. I mean, it’s no secret he’s… I don’t want to use the word idiot, but the only other words that come to mind are moron and dumbass. Since it’s no secret, someone in the administration would more than likely want to ensure that he doesn’t look like as much of an idiot during important appearances, like, say, the debates.

As it turns out, I’m not the only person who suspects that this is the case. Frankly, the evidence is overwhelming.

Speaking of Bush, there’s something that I’ve been meaning to blog about for a while now. Remember how CBS “accidentally” used false documents to support its claim of something fishy going on with Bush’s National Guard Service records? After it was made public that the memos in question were, in fact, not valid (courtesy of bloggers, I might add), Dan Rather publicly apologised for CBS, then offered a personal apology.

The CBS website also released the following statement:

At the time CBS News fully believed the documents were genuine. Tonight, after further investigation, we can no longer vouch for their authenticity.

The documents were provided to CBS News by a former commander in the Texas Air Guard, Bill Burkett. He did not come to CBS News, a CBS team went to him and asked him for the documents.

Burkett is well known in National Guard circles for a long battle over his medical benefits, and for trying for several years now to discredit President Bush’s military service record.

Burkett initially told CBS News he got the documents from a fellow guardsman. But when CBS News Anchor Dan Rather interviewed Burkett this past weekend, he changed his story and said he got the documents from a different source — one CBS News cannot verify.

It didn’t take long for people to start in with comments that, “Rather should retire.” Other people suggested that he simply be fired. Suddenly the term, “Rathergate” surfaced and websites began to feature polls querying users about their opinion of Dan Rather’s future with CBS.

Having worked in news, this pissed me off. The fact that when I did work in news it was at a CBS station aside, it is my opinion that Dan Rather is an auspicious news anchor.

That people think he should be fired over this mistake stems from two lesser-known facts about how the news industry operates. The first is one that I previously blogged about; get it first, then get it right. One of the most important things in news is bragging rights. If you can claim to have broken a story, especially one as impactful as Bush being a liar, that gives you a leg up over the competition. News stations all over the country (and presumably the world) practice “get it first, then get it right” every day. So why was it such a big deal this time? Two reasons. The gravity and reach of the story (that is, its implications and the audience it was able to reach) were significantly larger than one you would watch on your local news station. Had this been a story about something else (say, a fire at someone’s house) on another station (KRAP in Anytown, USA), no one would have noticed. I’m sure it’s happened in your town and you haven’t noticed.

The other problem stems from the fact that the majority of people don’t realise how much work goes into the average newscast. The typical news team (sports and weather not included; I’m talking hard news, here) is made up of anchors and reporters. The anchors sit at a desk in the studio and read stories, whereas the reporters usually read their stories from a remote location (sometimes they “tag” a pre-produced news story from in the studio. I’m not going to explain it all here, but if you want to know, e-mail me and I can go more in-depth about it). There are two major differences (what is it with things coming in pairs?) between anchors and reporters apart from where they read their stories. First is the sheer volume of stories (anchors will read a few dozen short news stories during the course of a broadcast, while reporters usually read one long story). The other, and more important, difference is =who actually writes= the stories. Reporters write their own material. They go out into the field, interview people, gather facts, and write the script that they read on the air. In contrast, anchors rarely write their own material.

What happens is a team of producers operate as fact-gatherers and script-writers. There’s no way an anchor (or reporter) has time to do the work required to write that many news stories (our longest “A block” (the section of the broadcast before the first commercial break and usually the longest of all blocks) while at the CBS station was over forty elements long with each element being a different story). The producers write the script, which the anchors usually read before the show (if they have time. It’s never good to have to read a story cold; believe me, I’ve tried). The most writing anchors do is to rewrite a word or a sentence here and there to match their natural speech patterns. Sometimes they research and write their own stories, but they’re few and far between. Network news works in a very similar fashion (except that in local news, almost every story the anchors read is pulled off the Associated Press wire feed).

So what does this all mean? It means that Dan Rather had nothing to do with the false memos. Some producer got them and wrote the story. Some producer failed to do the proper fact checking and some producer is the one who should “retire or be fired”, not Dan Rather. However, as a result of the general public not knowing or not understanding how news is written and presented, they don’t realise that Dan is innocent. A mistake was made and Dan Rather was the face they associated with the mistake.

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