Captain Dan the Newsman
Who. What. When. Where. Why. How.
These are the questions that journalists must answer each time they write a story, the pieces of information they owe to readers or viewers. But presenting them is not enough; journalists must also give each of the "five Ws and an H " its proper emphasis. To exaggerate one while minimizing another is to distort a story, to use the raw materials of objectivity to fashion something quite subjective.
Take Dan Rather. It's been more than a week and a half since he reported on Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris's certification of George W. Bush as the winner of the state's 25 electoral votes, yet the e-mails and letters to Fox News Watch keep coming. To most writers, Rather's comments were the most offensive performance by a journalist in the entire month since Election Day. What he did was overstate the "who" and lose sight of the "what."
The "what," of course, was the certification. But Rather dwelled at great length on the "who," stating that Bush had won Florida's electoral votes "as the Florida secretary of state sees it and decrees it." The results were final, "at least in the opinion of the secretary of state." Harris "in effect believes that the election certification she gives should stand." After all, "in her opinion, and she thinks she has the legal right to do it and the legal duty and obligation to do it," Bush was the winner in her state. And so on.
To a degree, Rather acted responsibly. After all, the certification was not final, not with various legal challenges still under way. For Rather to imply that Harris's announcement gave Bush the White House would have been — at least at the time — irresponsible.
But Rather was so intent on qualifying Harris's action that he seemed not to be giving it context so much as to be challenging its validity. He similarly transgressed in repeated references to Harris's politics. She is a Republican, as we've mentioned before. She is the Republican secretary of state — got that? — the Republican secretary of state. She is, in case you missed it, Republican Katherine Harris.
Yes, Harris is a Republican and a Bush campaign worker. And yes, the fact should be pointed out. But to repeat the information time and again was to besmirch Harris, to question her integrity because of her politics. It was, in other words, to take an editorial position under the guise of presenting all the relevant details. Rather would say that he meant to put the certification into perspective. In truth, he put it under a cloud of suspicion.
I am not sure that this is what he intended. Rather was not reading from a teleprompter after Harris's announcement, and he has a tendency to overdo it when he ad-libs. Dan Rather is, in fact, to journalists what the late Sam Kinison was to comedians: an over-the-top kind of guy whose lack of restraint is more an expression of style than of a certain view of the world.
Regardless, Rather went too far. Perhaps not as far as Politically Incorrect host Bill Maher, who told a horrid joke about O.J. Simpson murdering Harris; perhaps not as far as George Will, who wrote about "the squalor of Gore's attempted coup d'etat."
But then again, perhaps even further. For Maher is a comedian, Will a columnist; both have a certain license. Rather, on the other hand, is a reporter, a purveyor of facts, and as such should have painted the certification story in black and white. By adding color, the CBS News anchor added controversy as well.