One reads the report on CBS and the bogus memos - all 224 pages of it, supported by about 500 pages of exhibits - with a gathering sense of dismay.
It is not a snow job. CBS promised findings "in weeks, not months" about allegations it had aired bogus memos suggesting disobedience by George Bush in the Texas Air National Guard in1972-73. Four months and half-a-million dollars later, we have a report by two eminences (a former attorney general and a former head of the Associated Press) that amounts to the devastation of Dan Rather and CBS.
The report finds - let's see:
-"Egregious shortcomings" (former AP President and CEO Lou Boccardi's words) in the realm of broadly accepted journalistic standards. ("Our report does not give CBS a passing grade.")
-A determination by CBS to rush the memos onto the air.
-"Solid sources" (Rather's words) that were in truth a congeries of Democratic hangers-on, hustlers, and hacks.
So, as one reads along, where does the dismay enter and gather steam?
1) Though within hours of CBS' airing of the memos their genuineness lay in tatters across the Internet and the pages of the nation's major newspapers, the panel refuses to go there. It concludes: "The panel was not able to reach a definitive conclusion as to the authenticity of the . documents."
Mountains of evidence, not least including the panel's own exhibits, show the memos to be forgeries beyond a reasonable doubt. To conclude anything else is to approach the still-held position of, among others, Dan Rather: that though the memos cannot be authenticated, they cannot be proven wrong either; besides, their content is accurate, even if they are not.
Which is ideological incoherence.
2) Rather was distracted - harried by coverage of Florida hurricanes, for instance, and anyway not deeply involved in preparation of the memos story.
The exhibits make clear Rather's deep involvement in interviews and other aspects of the bogus-memos affair. In truth, for five years he and producer Mary Mapes - who in the wake of the panel's report took the fall at CBS as principal perpetrator in airing the bogus memos - had been seeking to show Bush as a slacking, disobedient incompetent in the Air National Guard.
Rather still believes that (e.g., his words: "the facts are right on the money") - and never mind whether the memos offered to support the "facts" are fakes. This is why, although he has said he is "sorry" for being "misled" by a wacko source ("we were more trusting in [our] source than we should have been") and thus airing the memos without authenticating them. It also is why he has not yet apologized to President Bush for lying on the air - i.e., for stipulating CBS had "unimpeachable sources," and that it had authenticated the memos when it had not done so because it could not do so - and for seeking to manipulate the electoral process and affect the outcome of the presidential race.
Consider this aspect as well: Rather long has promoted himself as an intrepid reporter. On the contrary, as are all network anchors, he is far more a reader of "news" unearthed and written up by others. If the report is correct in saying he was hardly involved in the CBS segment on the bogus memos, then that finding sustains the suggestion Rather is principally the newsreader he says he is not. And of course, if the report is incorrect in this finding, then that sustains the suggestion Rather the intrepid reporter was heavily involved and should be fired.
3) Finally, the panel concludes it could not find a basis to accuse those who investigated, produced, vetted, or aired the segment of having a political bias.
The panel bases this utterly dismaying finding on Rather and Mapes themselves. It asked them, and both strongly denied that they brought any political bias to the segment. Bias? Rather: "Absolutely, unequivocally untrue." Ms. Mapes: "proximity, not politics." The panel's conclusion: "[We] cannot conclude that a political agenda at '60 Minutes Wednesday' drove either the timing or the airing of the segment or its content."
In all, the panel exorcised the what of the bogus-memo affair, but not the why. Why were Rather and Mapes and CBS careless and hasty? Why did they rush onto the air with forged memos? They believed the memos' content even in the face of their obvious fraudulence. They were seeking to force the facts into their mold - into their interpretation of reality. That is the essence of ideology.
And ideology - leftist ideology - lies at the heart of the CBS bogus-memo affair.
Linda Mason, elevated to a new CBS post overseeing broadcast standards, said this in explanation - exculpation? - following CBS' announcement of network departures in the wake of the panel's report: "I firmly believe if [Rather and Ms. Mapes] found something about Kerry and his past, they'd be rushing to get that on the air, too."
In truth, rumors about Kerry's past - his performance during four months in Vietnam, his medals, his peacenik activities, the level of his discharge from the military (was it ever less than honorable?) - were as rife at the time as were rumors about Bush's past in the Texas Air National Guard. Add to that Kerry's determination at the Democratic National Convention to make his Vietnam service a major element of his campaign, and the rumors about his past became particularly ripe for intrepid reporting.
Yet CBS essentially ignored the Kerry rumors and disparaged those (principally members of Swift Boat Veterans for Truth) most responsible for putting the spotlight on them. Such absence of coverage reflected the same leftist bias that led Rather to dismiss those who challenged the veracity of the bogus memos as "primarily supporters of President Bush with their own conservative political agenda." Rather kid-gloved rumors about liberal Kerry, gave him a free ride, while giving no slack to rumors about conservative Bush - even in the face of the truth. Conversely, he did not do what Linda Mason insisted he would do.
The panel probes little in the realm of the memos' provenance. It cites haste and "deficient reporting" but stops short of probing the reasons for the deficiency. It neglects the why of CBS' insistence on airing bogus memos it knew it could not authenticate. Thereby, dismayingly, the panel failed to go to the heart of the problem - the liberalism that so many are convinced so drives CBS News.
Rather & Co. wanted to believe the memos to be genuine in order to sustain their view of President Bush and ultimately to bring him down. But alas, even with the panel's report, vastly fewer believe its finding of no ideological bias than believe the tawdry bogus-memo episode demonstrates once more the driving liberalism that permeates the mainline press in which CBS and Dan Rather have played such a major role.
Ross Mackenzie lives with his wife and Labrador retriever in the woods west of Richmond, Virginia. They have two grown sons, both Naval officers.
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