Wednesday, September 15, 2004

Hugh Hewitt says there should be a Congressional hearing into Rathergate:

But it isn't about Rather's or CBS's or all of old media's reputation. Someone tried to manipulate a presidential election! If that isn't a matter of Congressional oversight, nothing is, and even if the GOP blows it --and Chris Cox is not the sort of congressman to participate in botched inquiries-- that fear does not release Congress from its duty.

Congress might not chose to do its duty, leaving it open to the charge that it just doesn't care much about electoral honesty. Wait and see.

The emphasis is Hugh's. And while I understand his point, I must disagree. Rathergate is a media story, where someone lied to CBS, and CBS broadcast the lie. This is disturbing, and CBS's credibility has been torn to shreds, but it's a long way from manipulating the election. Neither CBS nor anyone else has been accused of forging ballots or buying votes. People are still able to make up their minds, CBS lies notwithstanding.

Deliberately or not, there is no question that CBS lied to its audience. However, while CBS News may have an ethical obligation (and long-term business interest) to be truthful with its viewers, it has no legal obligation to be truthful. The absolute worst accusation that can be thrown against CBS News at this point is that they violated election laws by becoming a de facto propaganda machine for Kerry. And this is unlikely to stick, if for no other reason that they were not actually helping Kerry, but rather hurting Bush. It's the same distinction that applies to the 527 groups.

But that's not even the bigger issue. Quite frankly, I don't ever want any branch of the U.S. government investigating the content of news stories. Once we start down this road, where do we stop? If we can drag CBS News executives in front of a congressional committee for trying to influence the election, what keeps us from dragging the Swift Boat Vets into the same chamber, for the same reason? (After all, they were far more effective!) Or the MoveOn PAC? Or, for that matter, me or Hugh? Surely if the content of a CBS story could influence the election, so could Hugh's radio show, or, for that matter, my little blog? (OK, maybe not my blog...)

I personally prefer that Congress and the FEC stay out of this. Plenty of damage to CBS News and Dan Rather has been done by the public humiliation they have endured so far. (It's never good when your credibility as a journalist is a Jay Leno punchline.) Plenty more will be done in the future, and I salute Powerline, INDC, Allah, Instapundit, and Hugh for keeping this story alive and burning CBS's buttocks. But what we don't need here is government intervention. That will only damage our democracy, not to mention turn those responsible for this outrage into martyrs.

The position I take here is classically libertarian. The market is clearly working. Let it.

Update: Just noticed a paragraph in the same post, which I feel I must address:

If the forger rides off unmolested, with only CBS News' reputation left in ruins, the message is clear: Try again next time, only use better forgers. Whatever works is repeated. Whatever fails without penalty is improved and repeated. Whatever is punished --severely-- goes away.

This is quite true, but it still does not give license to Congress to interfere. Ultimately, whoever passed these documents to CBS, is merely guilty of lying to CBS. It is, quite simply, none of our business. If CBS ends up suffering for this, recourse is their concern -- they can sue, they can out him, they can use their considerable bully pulpit to blame the whole thing on him, discredit and vilify him, whatever. But other than that, there are no forms of punishment that Congress could mete out. Lying to reporters is not a crime. It is the reporter's job to check out the story, which CBS clearly failed to do in this case (probably with intent). It was CBS -- not their source -- who abused the public trust, and it is CBS that must suffer for it. And the rest of us just will have to be that much the wiser the next time documents mysteriously show up two months before an election. If anything, this episode will make it that much harder to use such a campaigning method in the future, even if the story is true and the documents authentic.

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