In a breathtaking scoop sure to make journalism history, CBS News broke a stunning story Monday that rocked the nation: A source "misled" the network by providing forged documents intended to impugn President George W. Bush and his Air National Guard service.
OK, I'm kidding about the scoop part. And surely CBS is kidding about being "misled."
By the time CBS issued a statement confirming that documents Rather presented in a "60 Minutes II" segment earlier this month were bogus, the story had been busted wide open by bloggers, then reported, rehashed, regurgitated, rinsed, spun, recycled and hung out to dry by the rest of the media.
As punditress Lucianne Goldberg, Mother Superior of the blogosphere, noted on her news blog (www.lucianne.com): "Blogs: one hour; CBS: 13 days."
Which is to say, Rather and CBS confirmed what every semi-cognizant person on the planet already knew. The network built a story around fake memos and another once-revered institution of the Fourth Estate cracked under the weight of its own self-righteousness.
The joke was that Rather also wanted to break the story of what amounts to his own malfeasance. So he told Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz, in a statement that prompted Earthlings to check their planetary coordinates: "If the documents are not what we were led to believe, I'd like to break that story."
Well, the documents weren't what CBS fervently wanted them to be, but, never mind, the source did it. As for CBS and Rather: "We made a mistake in judgment."
CBS may have been misled, but no one at the network was blindly misled. Rather and the network's producers had ample advance warning from their own document analysts that the memos' authenticity could not be confirmed with 100 percent confidence.
Of four experts consulted, two raised questions about various aspects of the documents, and at least one warned that they weren't quite ready for prime time. Yet CBS decided to run with the story anyway.
Given which, it's disingenuous for the network to say it was misled as though everything had been airtight. Where there is reasonable doubt about damning documents, especially proffered in an election season against a commander in chief during war, there is no story.
No one at CBS doesn't know this.
So while CBS was misled by its source, now known to be Bill Burkett, a retired National Guard lieutenant colonel also widely known to have issues with the Bush family, the network misled itself into believing what it clearly wanted to believe.
Here's how we reach that conclusion even in the face of more-charitable theories that CBS just got swept up by a hot story. It wasn't a hot story and never was. Every issue raised by CBS has been raised every time George Bush has run for any office, and he keeps getting elected, from which lip-readers might infer: No one cares.
Bush has a four-year record as president of the United States during which time the country has been attacked by terrorists and engaged in war in two theaters. His actions 30 years ago are eclipsed by more recent and far more important events.
Given that the story was tepid at best, the only explanation for CBS's gung-ho-ness in airing it despite misgivings is bad bias, not bad judgment.
Rather, who has lent his name to at least two Democratic fund-raising events in recent years, has allowed his political interests to color his judgment.
Or this, which is what Americans have a right to expect from adults whose powerful position can sway the course of human history: "These events occurred on my watch. I am accountable for them, and I take full responsibility." Doubtless it was painful for Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld to speak those words before the Senate Armed Services Committee last May following the story about prisoner abuse at the Abu Ghraib prison, which Rather also broke on "60 Minutes II."
You'd think Rather might have taken notes.