Dan Rather's defense of his dubious report on President George W. Bush's Air National Guard service - a report largely based on documents he now concedes may have been fakes - suggests that the CBS newsman has entered the spirit world.
Forgeries, schmorgeries, we've got "fundamental truths" here. As in, Rather stands by the "fundamental truth" of his story, notwithstanding the inconvenient fact that the evidence for that truth may have been false.
In so many words, that's what Rather has said in response to challenges about the authenticity of the documents in question, purportedly the typed memos of Bush's deceased commanding officer, Lt. Col. Jerry Killian. Rather offered the documents in a recent "60 Minutes II" segment as incontrovertible proof that Bush was given preferential treatment in his guard assignment and that he missed a physical 30 years ago.
Not exactly the Pentagon Papers, but such is that state of journalism today. In the world of ubiquitous politics and insta-punditry, we've even devalued the currency of scandal.
In the wake of Rather's report, Internet bloggers, newspapers and other media outlets have turned up witnesses, including several used by CBS to authenticate the documents, saying that the memos are fakes and probably part of a hoax. Even Killian's 86-year-old secretary, Marion Carr Knox, says the documents are fakes, though she insists they reflect what Killian really felt.
Nevertheless, Rather and CBS have insisted the story is true. How's that? The evidence is fraudulent, even nonexistent, but the truth is transcendent? This is a level of faith even the evangelical Bush might envy.
Such faith perhaps helps explain Rather's and CBS's stonewalling for several days. Their dogmatic defense of the report has been directed not so much toward the authenticity of the documents, which they now concede may be forgeries, as toward the essence of the story.
If you don't let facts get in your way, the "Real, Secret, Hidden Story of George Bush's National Guard Service" is a pretty good story - if you're having trouble sleeping.
Or if you've been on life support for several years and just emerged from a coma, in which case the nocturnal habits of wood-boring beetles would be only slightly less riveting.
Challenging Americans to get through their newspapers without spewing coffee, Rather told The New York Observer that partisans are using the forged documents to "obscure the truth."
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