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."
"I think the public . . . understand that powerful and extremely well-financed forces are concentrating on questions about the documents because they can't deny the fundamental truth of the story," he said.
"If you can't deny the information, then attack and seek to destroy the credibility of the messenger, the bearer of the information. And in this case, it's change the subject from the truth of the information to the truth of the documents.
"This is your basic fogging machine, which is set up to cloud the issue, to obscure the truth," he said.
With all due respect, the fundamental truth of a story is that which can't be denied? The truth of information is independent of the truth of documents that are supposed to establish that truth? And Rather wants to talk about other people's fog?
In the spirit realm where Rather apparently now dwells, truths are simply known as a matter of faith. That's cool. I can travel in the realm of ultimate truths - on my time off. But in my day job here on Planet Earth, at least when making claims against someone else's rectitude, truth has to be supported by fact.
The first rule of journalism is: Get it right. The second is: Own up to a mistake when you make one. As one who has made a few, including falling for an Internet hoax, journalistic schadenfreude is not my game. It's embarrassing and painful to trip in front of so many, but Rather's hubris seems to be what's clouding this particular issue.
Given the preponderance of evidence at this point, one can only conclude that Dan Rather and CBS knowingly used documents that were not conclusively authentic to bolster a story intended to challenge the character and credibility of a president during an election year.
That's the fundamental truth of this story.