CBS News constantly referred to Dan Rather’s interview with one of the world’s cruelest tyrants as a “coup.” A coup? For whom? Was it a coup for the American viewing public? Of course not. Other than the lengths to which Dan Rather went to be obsequious to a tyrant, Americans learned nothing from his interview with Saddam Hussein. Was it a coup for the news profession? Again, no. No news was learned, nor was any likely to be. No, it was a coup solely for CBS News and Saddam Hussein. That the world of television news (not only CBS) regards it as a major achievement shows the depths to which television news has sunk. Obviously, the industry sees ratings as its reason for being. The moment it was announced that Dan Rather had secured an audience with Saddam, I suspected (and said so on my radio show) that the only beneficiaries would be Saddam and CBS. The only way it could have been newsworthy is if Rather had asked hard questions. For example, Rather might have asked the world’s most powerful sadist:
- You claim to have received 100 percent of the vote in your last “election.” Do you think the world believes that in a nation of 24 million people, there aren’t 24 people who want another president in Iraq?
- Eight years ago, your two sons-in-law, Hussein Kamil, the former minister of defense, and his brother, defected to Jordan. We are quite certain that they were told that their entire extended families would be murdered if they did not return to Iraq. And when they did return, they were killed and their bodies dragged through the streets of Baghdad. How do your daughters feel about what you did to their husbands?
- Was it you or another Iraqi official who came up with the idea of having the children of suspected dissidents tortured in front of the parents?
- Have you seen any photos of the thousands of Iraqi Kurdish families you ordered gassed?
- Do you regret having invaded Iran and causing the deaths of about one million Iraqis and Iranians?
- How many more hundred-million-dollar palaces do you plan to build for yourself while Iraqi children die of malnutrition?
- Where are the billions of dollars Iraq has been allowed to earn for humanitarian needs?
Now, of course, few, if any, reporters would have asked Saddam Hussein these questions. (Television reporters tend to restrict tough questioning to democratically elected leaders they don’t like.) But if one is not going to ask a dictator anything approaching the truth about his actions, why bother interviewing him? Isn’t the whole thing morally compromised and journalistically meaningless? What would we think of a radio network that had nationally broadcast an interview with Adolf Hitler in 1944 in which the fuehrer was asked nothing about Nazi anti-Semitism or the concentration camps? An interview in which the American reporter had warmly clasped the Nazi leader with both hands? An interview that had been procured through the services of an American Nazi sympathizer (as the Rather interview was procured through the services of the longtime friend of America’s enemies, Ramsey Clark)? Would we have deemed such an interview a “coup,” or a moral fraud which only gave Hitler an opportunity to portray himself as a decent human? That is what CBS News and Dan Rather did — and the news community is giving them high-fives. All this is sad, even angering, but not surprising. For decades, television news has largely been a failure, almost entirely avoiding many of the world’s great events — from the Soviet war in Afghanistan and the Chinese crushing of Tibet, to the mass murders and slavery in Sudan, the genocide in Rwanda, and the slide of middle-class Argentina into destitution — in favor of drama and entertainment in the pursuit of ratings. Just think how much time television news devoted to the O.J. Simpson murder trial. That most Americans get almost all their news from profit-driven television news is bad news. And non-profit, government-owned newscasts (as in Europe) are even worse. With the exception of image-driven events such as the 9-11 attacks, television news is a failure. If you want to know what is happening in the world, read good newspapers, listen to quality talk radio, watch quality TV talk shows, and spend time on the Internet. But don’t rely on TV news for news. And if the Dan Rather-Saddam Hussein interview prompts people to get their news elsewhere, that will truly be a coup.