Even before the story aired, Burkett's description of his own source for the documents kept changing. He said he received the documents anonymously in the mail. He said he was given the documents by someone who would "know what to do with [the documents] better than" he would. He said his source was Chief Warrant Officer George Conn ? amid copious warnings that CBS "should not call Chief Warrant Officer Conn because he would deny it" and further that "Conn was on active duty and could not be reached at his Dallas home."
Burkett needn't have worried about crack investigator Mary Mapes getting in touch with his alleged source. Even though a three-second search on Google would have revealed that (1) Burkett was crazy, and (2) he had tried to use Conn as a source before and Conn had vehemently denied Burkett's claims, Mapes told the investigating committee "she did not consider Chief Warrant Officer Conn's denial to be reliable."
It seems Burkett had told Mapes that "Conn was still in the military and that his wife threatened to leave him if he spoke out against President Bush." That was good enough for Mapes. She concluded that Conn ? the only person who could have corroborated Burkett's story ? was not to be trusted. Instead, Mapes placed all her faith in the disgruntled, paranoid nut with a vendetta against Bush, an extensive psychiatric history and an ever-growing enemies list. I'm referring to Bill Burkett here, not Dan Rather.
Finally, Burkett claimed a woman named Lucy Ramirez had passed the documents to him at a livestock show in Houston. It is believed that this account marks the exact day that Burkett's lithium prescription ran out. Despite the fact that no one at CBS was able to locate Ramirez, CBS stuck with the story.
This isn't a lack of "rigor" in fact-checking, as the CBS report suggests. It's a total absence of fact-checking. CBS found somebody who told the story they wanted told ? and they ran with it, wholly disregarding the facts.
Curiously, though Mapes trusted Burkett implicitly, she was very careful not to reveal his name to anyone at CBS, probably because she would have been laughed out of the room.
Instead, Mapes described Burkett in the abstract as: "solid," "without bias," "credible," "a Texas Republican of a different chromosome," a "John McCain supporter," "reliable" and "a maverick" ? leaving out only "Burkett is convinced he can communicate with caterpillars" and "his best friend is a coffee table." His name was not important. It's not as if he was the sole source for a highly damaging story about the president eight weeks before the election or anything. Oh wait ...
At a meeting with CBS lawyers the day the story would air, Mapes "did not reveal the source's name or anything negative about the source," but "expressed 'enormous confidence' in her source's reliability and said that he was solid with no bias or credibility issues." She described Burkett as a "moralistic stickler." The subject of UFOs simply never came up.
Mapes trusted Burkett on the basis of the following:
Actually, Mapes did not put her last reason in writing, which created a real mystery for the CBS investigating committee. Proving once again how useless "moderate Republicans" are, "The CBS Report" ? co-authored by moderate Republican Dick Thornburgh ? found no evidence of political bias at CBS.
If Fox News had come out with a defamatory story about Kerry based on forged documents, liberals would be demanding we cut power to the place. (Fortunately, the real documents on Kerry were enough to do the trick.) But the outside investigators hired by CBS could find no political agenda at CBS.
By contrast, the report did not hesitate to accuse the bloggers who exposed the truth about the documents of having "a conservative agenda." As with liberal attacks on Fox's "fair and balanced" motto, it is now simply taken for granted that "conservative bias" means "the truth."
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