THE PRESS LOVES to scrutinize everyone and everything—except itself. But what would we see if reporters had the honesty to confess their own sins or aim their investigative searchlights at each other? What if politicians became inquisitors, holding up a mirror to reveal the secret lives of reporters? If some of the hoariest pillars of journalism were thus turned over, what creepy, crawly bugs beneath the stone would be exposed?
We caught a tiny flash of such clarifying light recently on ABC's This Week. Rumors of presidential candidate George W. Bush's suspected drug use were in the news. Sam Donaldson asked one guest, former Senator Bill Bradley (D., N.J.), whether he had used illegal drugs. Bradley acknowledged some past marijuana use, but then turned the tables on the journalists.
"Have you?" Bradley asked of Donaldson. Sam hesitated a moment, then replied: "I think a couple of times I've tried it. And I inhaled."
"Have you, Cokie?" The show's co-star, Why-do-you-think-they-call-her-Cokie
Roberts, gave a laughing reply she would have deemed a non-answer had she or another journalist asked the question. "Oh, listen, I was so pregnant during those years." She never actually said Yea or Nay to whether she had used drugs.
"George?" asked Bradley, bemused. "No," replied conservative columnist George Will. "I'm from the Falstaff generation," apparently referring to the cakes and ale-loving character from Shakespeare. (For a complete transcript of this interview, click here.)
Senator Bradley launched no follow-up questions. His point was made. People who lived in stoned houses shouldn't throw glass. How many journalists, especially Baby Boomers, could withstand the scrutiny about their own past drug use that they were aiming in gotcha fashion at politicians?
But this revelatory moment could lead the press in either of two directions. Reporters could adopt an Acapulco Golden Rule, refusing to ask politicians drug questions that journalists would not want to answer about themselves. Reporters and politicians tacitly would agree not to bring the topic up, as in an earlier era when the press never reported politicians' alcoholism, escapades, or physical handicaps.
Or the press could accept that the Fourth Estate has a watchdog responsibility to keep politicians clean—and to come clean itself. Americans deserve to know whether a politician has been a pothead or inhaler of nose candy. We need such facts to make an informed choice of whose finger in the Oval Office should hover above the nuclear button.
Do we likewise deserve to know whether the journalists we depend on to keep a sharp, clear eye on our politicians are now or ever have been users of illegal, mind-altering drugs? If a reporter is eager to pursue someone such as Governor Bush with this question, should he or she be equally willing to reveal his or her own past and present drug use? And should reporters investigate and expose to the public the secret past chemical adventures of fellow journalists?
As an example of where such inquisition might lead, I offer one subject ripe for questions that (were this person a conservative) could easily win some enterprising reporter a Pulitzer Prize. Watch the news for a few weeks after this column runs and see whether any national journalists turn their reporting to the drug-using boasts of the media superstar I discuss here. If you see no response, you'll understand all you need to know about the mainstream media.
This star is a Texan, like Governor Bush. Dan Rather is not only anchor of the CBS Evening News but also its longtime managing editor, the censor who decides what stories and information CBS viewers will be permitted to see. In other words, he puts the BS in CBS News. To call him a liberal is an understatement. In one interview with First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, he virtually licked her shoes in an act of sycophantic worship. His newscasts almost always tilt left and have not been silent about rumors of Governor Bush's possible drug use more than eighteen years ago.
But more than eighteen years ago Dan Rather gave a remarkable interview to journalist Cliff Jahr. It appeared in, of all places, the July 1980 issue of that news-breaking national magazine Ladies' Home Journal under the title "Soft Side of a Tough Anchorman." You can find it at any large public library. In it, asked about his children in a era of widespread drug use, Rather is quoted by Jahr: "I told them … if you're hell-bent to try pot, and I suspect you will be, then try it at home around people who care about you."
When Jahr asked if the anchorman himself had smoked marijuana, Dan Rather in part replied: "As a reporter—and I don't want to say that that's the only context—I've tried everything. I can say to you with confidence, I know a fair amount about LSD. I've never been a social user of any of these things, but my curiosity has carried me into a lot of interesting areas."
Jahr quotes Dan Rather as continuing: "As an example, in 1955 or '56, I had someone at the Houston police station shoot me with heroin so I could do a story about it. The experience was a special kind of hell. I came out understanding full well how one could be addicted to 'smack,' and quickly. When the children were fairly young, and there was so much emphasis everywhere on drugs, it was not possible for them to tell me I didn't know what I was talking about."
If this fellow Dan Rather were a Republican presidential candidate, imagine the questions that the tough, highly skilled CBS veteran journalist Dan Rather could put to him with TV cameras focused in tight on the politician's sweating face:
Mr. Rather, this incident in Houston where you had someone at the police station shoot you up with heroin … please identify the 'someone' who committed a felony by giving you heroin. Was this heroin taken from the police evidence locker? Did you know that removing and destroying criminal evidence is a crime? Did you stop to think that such tampering with evidence could lead to a re-trial or acquittal of one or more dangerous criminals?
Mr. Rather, was this street heroin that might have been 'cut' and contaminated with oven cleaner, lye, or other dangerous impurities? Even pure heroin administered by anyone other that a knowledgeable medical professional can cause brain damage or death. What does it say about your judgement that you behaved in this reckless way?
Mr. Rather, can you describe how the heroin was prepared—on a spoon, over a flame, or how? Into what spot on your body was it injected? Do you know how much was injected? What did this 'special kind of hell' feel like?
Or, Mr. Rather, was the heroin you used of pure pharmaceutical grade? Was it administered by a doctor or nurse? If so, please identify these medical professionals who violated state and federal law by giving you a controlled substance without a valid medical reason, just so you could experience the drug.
"Mr. Rather, were you aware that if you had no proper prescription from a licensed doctor authorizing such heroin use that you were committing a felony punishable by long-term imprisonment in Texas—and that whoever helped you would be an accomplice in this felony? No police officer has the authority to exempt you from the laws prohibiting heroin use, even if you were a reporter or used it in front of him with his knowledge and help. In fact, he had a duty to arrest you on the spot, didn't he? Please identify all employees at this police station who were aware of your heroin use and failed to arrest you. Can you provide us with any film, videotape, or reporter notes associated with your heroin experimentation? Did you inform your bosses or audience that you had taken heroin? If your drug experimentation was known only to the police, did it compromise your subsequent reporting about the police to know that they had the power to expose your secret drug use?
And when you reportedly told Cliff Jahr 'I know a fair amount about LSD,' how many times have you taken this mind-altering substance? Where? Have you experienced 'flashbacks,' one of the reported long-term aftereffects of using this drug, while preparing or doing a newscast or driving a car? What exactly happened in your mind on that strange day you disappeared from a newscast for six or seven minutes during a tennis match? What other 'interesting areas' involving drugs has your curiosity carried you into? What was the most recent date or year you used illegal drugs?
A top-notch reporter like Dan Rather would not rest until he'd gotten answers to these questions and dozens more from any Republican Presidential candidate who more than eighteen years ago boasted in a nationally published interview of using LSD and heroin. As the CBS Evening News managing editor, Dan Rather would undoubtedly dispatch investigative reporters to Houston to interview every person who knew, or had heard rumors about, candidate Dan Rather's drug experimentation. And he would report every shred of solid (negative) information that could be found.
But the press rarely scrutinizes itself, and as one of the Olympian gods of news Dan Rather will almost certainly remain above press questions that he would face were he a mere mortal or U.S. president. For two decades, Rather has wielded enormous power and influence as an unelected information-controller over the news relied upon by millions of Americans. As writer Kurt Vonnegut said in an October 8, 1999, Salon.com interview, "The permanent government now is the anchorpeople. They don't get elected, and … CNN now decides where we send our troops next." Control of information is power, and who would dare deny that as one of our Info-Rulers, Dan Rather has always been hard-working, skilled, courageous, a role model for the youth of America, and a proper subject for press oversight to prevent abuse of power?
Out of respect for his exalted position in our society, his fellow reporters—or if journalists are afraid, some radio talk hosts or presidential candidates—should ask Dan Rather these questions, just as Senator Bill Bradley asked Sam and Cokie about their drug use. The genuine reporter deep inside Dan Rather would want it that way, would want be straight with the American people today as he was in that almost-unnoticed interview long ago.