Hidden Critics, Too

In a piece in the Los Angeles Times today, James Rainey writes that “some critics said Monday that [Dan Rather] should be dropped as a reporter on ‘60 Minutes Wednesday.’”

He then quotes exactly zero critics saying as much.

Leo J. Flynn, a professor quoted immediately following the “some critics” line, does say that Rather “is really the responsible person in the public mind” — a statement that could be taken to mean that Rather must go. But that’s a stretch, and it’s as close as we get in Rainey’s story to someone calling for Rather’s head.

There are four other people quoted in the piece: CBS veteran Linda Mason; Matthew W. Sheffield, the co-editor of the anti-Rather website RatherBiased.com; recently fired CBS producer Mary Mapes; and an anonymous CBS employee. Mason says that “Rather’s hectic schedule meant that ‘he was not as involved as he should have been’” in the ill-fated September 8 report, but she never says he should be dropped. Sheffield “seemed willing to say that Rather’s upcoming departure as anchor was sufficient punishment.” (Rather plans to step down in March.) Mapes does damage control, repeating her contention that she vetted the story to her own satisfaction and committed no journalistic crimes. And the anonymouse discusses Mapes, not Rather.

Of course, anyone who’s wandered the freewheeling and sometimes hyperbolic blogosphere in recent days know that there’s a veritable lynch mob of self-appointed moralizers calling for Rather to be taken off the air. But when a reporter like Rainey uses a construction like “some critics say …” there needs to be legitimate, credible voices cited to buttress the assertion. Had Rainey put the offending sentence up front, where one might expect it — the headline of the piece, after all, is “CBS Went Easy On Rather, Critics Say” — then this would be a case of an unsupported lede. Since it’s in the sixth paragraph, however, it’s both unsupported and buried, making it a doubly dubious journalistic achievement.

Brian Montopoli

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Brian Montopoli is a writer at CJR Daily.