Rather be wrong

Posted: Sep 15, 2004 12:00 AM

I don't want to overstate the extent of my glee over the Dan Rather imbroglio now known as "Memogate." But, it may well be the Greatest Story . Ever (apologies to the Comic Book Guy from "The Simpsons"). If this story were a street urchin, I would take into my home, give it my name, and raise it as if it were my flesh and blood. If Monty Hall gave me the choice of picking this story or the coolest thing ever to reside behind Door No. 2, I would pick this story without a moment's hesitation. Cancel Christmas, suspend Hanukkah, blot out the sun with copies of the forged memos, and I will be perfectly happy.

Okay, I'm exaggerating . a little. But this story is truly God's Own Pi??, you can bash it from any angle and nothing but sweet, sweet goodness flows out. (Note: This analogy only works if you assume God is vexed with Dan Rather in particular and liberal media bias in general, which, truth be told, is a pretty big assumption.)

By now you know the basic outlines. To a great deal of fanfare, Dan Rather - Dashboard Saint of Liberal Journalists Who Won't Admit They Are Liberal - joined in what appeared to be a coordinated barrage against George W. Bush. Coinciding, deliberately or not, with a new ad campaign targeting Bush's service in the National Guard, Kitty Kelley's new book, and the Boston Globe's latest expose, Rather's "60 Minutes II" ran a story that claimed to reveal new, damning facts about Bush's allegedly lackadaisical service toward the end of his stint in the Air National Guard. (Another note: I think the evidence supports the notion that Bush was lackadaisical toward the end of his Guard service but, I just don't think it's the big story Rather and so many others want it to be.)

Dan Rather, anchoring the segment, relied on the testimony of a hyperpartisan Democrat and former Texas politician, Ben Barnes, whose story about getting Bush into the Guard has changed numerous times. Because Barnes is a co-chairman of the Kerry campaign, Rather needed something better than Barnes' word. He thought he found it in four documents, which Rather claimed substantiated the report.

The only problem: The documents are almost certainly forgeries - if by "almost certainly" you mean "absolutely, positively." First on various internet sites and then in the mainstream media (particularly ABC News and the Washington Post), the memos have become a "What's Wrong With This Picture?" game for anybody and everybody who knows anything about the National Guard, 1970s typewriters, or the proper means of verifying a story.

Indeed, every day since the story broke, the much-vaunted experts and witnesses CBS relied upon to authenticate the memos have made it clear that CBS wasn't particularly eager to get the truth. Their chief expert, the Washington Post revealed, now says he never even tried to authenticate the documents themselves, merely the signature which had been photocopied and faxed somewhere between 12 and a zillion times. Indeed, CBS has been asking its professional experts not to speak to the media - a sure sign that they know they didn't nail down the story in the first place.

Meanwhile, Dan Rather has dug in for dear life, ridiculing his critics and dismissing pretty much anyone who has eyes to see the truth as a "partisan," while the CBS front office continues to break off bits of it credibility like a man who feeds an alligator one body part at a time. A CBS spokeswoman told the Post: "In the end, the gist is that it's inconclusive. People are coming down on both sides, which is to be expected when you're dealing with copies of documents." Translation: We can't prove the source is true, but you can't prove it's not.

Well, since this is the new standard, I would like to announce my next column topic right now: Dan Rather has eaten fifteen German Shepherds in the last year alone and he considers himself the Warrior King of the planet Blarnack. I have just printed out documents that back up my story. It is for CBS to prove me wrong.

I could go on all day and into the night. But the point is this: Dan Rather is toast. Or, more broadly, "Dan Ratherism" is over. The man who used to sign off his broadcasts with "Courage" may be able to ride out this scandal, insofar as he won't be unceremoniously fired. But the age of the Nightly News Anchor as trusted uncle is now officially dead. It was dying already, but this scandal is its death rattle. Even if Rather admitted that he put the BS in CBS, it's too late to save his reputation with millions. Besides, once he admits that the documents are fake, he has to reveal his source, because there is no journalistic obligation to protect con artists who humiliate you. And my guess is that the source is even more embarrassing than the fraud.

I can't prove that. But who says I have to?