When legends fall through unnecessary mistakes

CBS anchor Dan Rather committed career suicide two months ago when he failed to validate documents that questioned President George W. Bush’s National Guard service. On Tuesday, Rather finally signed the death certificate to this stage of his career, announcing that he’ll step down as the face for CBS Evening News on March 9 — his 24th anniversary behind the anchor desk.

The New York Times reported that Rather had planned on keeping the anchor position until at least March 2006, when he’d celebrate a quarter of a century in the anchor chair. Already lagging behind NBC’s and ABC’s evening news programs, CBS would only loose more viewers because of Rather’s error in judgment. He made the right decision by stepping down.

As journalists, all we have is our word. We live by the mantra: to tell the truth. It’s all the public expects. And once we falter, it’s hard to regain that credibility.

Rather has said that broadcasting the documents was a mistake after he found out that he could not trust the source. I have no doubt that Rather didn’t deliberately mislead the public, and I believe him when he came forward during his evening newscast and said, “This was an error made in good faith.” Nonetheless, it was yet another blemish on an already stained profession.

In broadcast news, the saying goes that if you aren’t first, you’re last. As a journalist, I understand this. But in striving for speed, you must also strive for accuracy.

For decades, the three major networks have rivaled each other to call the big stories first: President John F. Kennedy’s death; George W.’s White House win (both times).

A report on why Rather and producer Mary Mapes trusted the documents is forthcoming, the Times reported. The findings of investigators looking into the matter remain relevant even in light of Rather’s decision to step down.

Though he’ll no longer lead the news team of CBS’s evening newscast, Rather will remain an integral part to the network, its officials have said. Executives plan to keep the 73-year-old in the newsroom as a correspondent.

While 25 years would have been a nice number for Rather’s departure, perhaps the time has come for a fresh voice. At NBC, Tom Brokaw will step down as anchor of Nightly News on Dec. 1. He’ll be succeeded by Brian Williams, who periodically fills in for him. Just weeks ago, ABC’s Barbara Walters turned over her 20/20 chair to Elizabeth Vargas after anchoring the Friday-night news show for 25 years. Brokaw and Walters have chosen to go out while they’re still at the top of their game. Hopefully, Rather’s remaining days at CBS will give him the chance to grab more of the stories that have kept viewers tuning in to see him in generations past.

One thing the media receives criticism for is not reporting on newsworthy events that happen within our organizations, especially when they may not portray us in the best light. While journalists rush each day to hold others accountable for their actions, we must do the same to ourselves.

Just last week, Oracle editor Adam Becker made one of the biggest errors in journalism by plagiarizing. After being confronted with the allegations, Becker tendered his resignation.

It doesn’t matter whether it’s a college journalist or a legendary anchor, people in the news business will make mistakes. As long as there is news, there will inevitably be corrections. A journalist is human; and our best shot at redemption, if the public chooses to forgive us, is owning up to our mistakes and moving on.

Kevin Graham is a former Oracle Editor in Chief. usfkevin@yahoo.com