Dan Rather and CBS News have written their own epitaph

Posted: Sep 15, 2004 12:00 AM
What should happen to Dan Rather and CBS News if those National Guard records impugning George W. Bush's service, revealed on "60 Minutes II" last week, prove to be forgeries? You'd think Mr. Rather and network executives would be concerned enough about their own fate to hedge their bets on the documents' authenticity, but instead, they've dug in their heels. Last Friday and again on Monday, Rather went to the mat on his evening news program to defend the documents. Yet questions continue to mount ? including disavowals by CBS's own experts that they can vouch the memos are genuine.

The preponderance of evidence now weighs heavily against CBS and Rather. The widow of Lt. Col. Jerry Killian, the putative author of the memos, says Killian did not type and rarely took, or saved, notes. Killian's former secretary ? who admits to voting against Bush in 2000 ? says she didn't type the memos, though she told Matt Drudge in an interview that she typed memos that had similar information in them. Others, including a number of news organizations, have raised questions about discrepancies in the typeface, typographical features, and military terms used in the memos. If Rather and CBS executives were smart, they'd study a similar forgery scandal involving a prominent news organization, Stern magazine's "Hitler Diaries" hoax, to discover how to avoid blinding themselves to the truth.

In April 1983, the West German publication announced a startling discovery: a cache of 62 handwritten volumes written by Adolph Hitler. The documents allegedly had been rescued from a Nazi plane wreck and kept hidden by sympathetic farmers in East Germany, only to be smuggled out to the West decades later. Stern decided to sell publishing rights to the documents, hoping to recoup the millions it had paid to acquire them, so the magazine hired a group of "experts" to assure prospective buyers that the diaries were authentic. The burden of proof was especially high since the documents themselves revealed a far more benign picture of Hitler than previously known. According to the manuscripts, Hitler didn't even know about, much less order, the genocide that killed 6 million Jews in concentration camps.

But as Rachel Bell writes in the excellent summary of the infamous hoax available online at Court TV's Crime Library, the magazine editors "allowed their enthusiasm to blind them." They ignored most of the criticism that began swirling as soon as the diaries were discovered. Most telling, "expert historians who specialized in Hitler's writings were unable to get a look at the secretive documents, which would have likely been exposed as a hoax upon first sight."

Like Stern, CBS is trotting out its own "experts" to confirm the authenticity of decades-old documents written by men long dead, but is not giving critics access to the documents in its possession. Now, even CBS's own experts are back-tracking on their assurances that the spurious memos are real. Marcel Matley, described by CBS as a documents expert, told the Washington Post that he examined only Killian's signature and made no attempt to authenticate the memos themselves, which he described as "copies . . . far removed" from the originals. Bill Glennon, another expert trotted out on the CBS Evening News to verify that typewriters of the era were capable of producing documents like those in question, admitted to the Post that he could not vouch for the memos authenticity. CBS did not even give Glennon copies when he visited their offices, forcing him to review the documents online.

Stern magazine ultimately had to admit it had been duped by a Nazi sympathizer, forger Konrad Kujau, and one of its own employees, investigative reporter Gerd Heidemann. Kujau and Heidemann were found guilty of perpetrating a hoax in 1985 and sentenced to four and a half years in prison.

Dan Rather and CBS executives don't have to worry about ending up in jail. The First Amendment protects them even if it turns out any of them knowingly perpetrated a hoax. But while the criminal justice system won't wreak vengeance, the viewing public will. Dan Rather and CBS News have written their own epitaph.

According to Bell, "The executives of Stern magazine were angered by the mounting suspicion concerning the diaries' authenticity and vehemently maintained that they were indeed genuine. Besides, their panel of experts proved the documents were legitimate. . . . It never occurred to Stern that the experts could have been mistaken."