Bad faith

Posted: Sep 22, 2004 12:00 AM
I'm glad Dan Rather has apologized. But I'd rather he would explain.

"I know this story is true." When I heard Dan Rather say this on the Friday after the story broke, I said to myself, "Something really weird is going on."

Journalists don't talk like that. How could Dan know this story was true? Was he there? Did he see it personally? Of course not. Why was he vouching for the story in the language of faith, not like a hard-headed journalist reporting the evidence?

Explain to us, Dan, why CBS News as an organization echoed this faith-based reporting at the highest levels, flipping the burden of proof and attacking the motives of critics in a way that struck most journalists (not just me, or Rush Limbaugh) as really odd.

Explain to us, Dan, just why it was so hard to find real experts to judge the documents? When USA Today began to suspect the documents, they took less than a day to locate two FBI-trained document experts who called them forgeries. Yet on Sept. 8, Dan Rather relied on Marcel Matley, whom he described on air as a "handwriting analyst and document expert who believes the material is authentic." By Sept. 14, the New York Post reported that in a 1995 California court deposition, Matley admitted he had no formal training as a document expert. A week later NBC News' Lisa Myers was reporting that Matley is "a former librarian whose only formal document training was a mail-in correspondence course."

Explain to us just how CBS News justifies Bobby Hodges. CBS News claimed Bush's former Texas National Guard commander had verified the memos. Turns out CBS only quickly read him copy over the phone. After actually seeing the memos, Hodges disputed their veracity, saying Col. Walter Staudt never pressured him to help Bush, and that Staudt had left the Guard by the time the memo was dated. CBS News' response? Spokeswoman Sandy Genelius implied Hodges was lying: "We believed Gen. Hodges the first time we spoke to him."

On Friday, Sept. 10, Dan Rather said, "CBS News stands by, and I stand by, the thoroughness and accuracy of this report, period." He accused critics of being "partisan political operatives." On Sept. 12, CBS News president Andrew Heywood swore: "The story was thoroughly vetted as all pieces of '60 Minutes' are. ... We used every appropriate journalistic standard and safeguard in reporting the story." On Sept. 13, Dan Rather again promised, "CBS used several techniques to make sure these papers should be taken seriously."

On Sept. 14, ABC News (not CBS News) interviewed two CBS News experts, who said they had warned the documents could be forgeries. CBS News' response? Other experts thought differently, and these guys didn't voice their objections so very strongly. Is this how reputable journalists think?

On Sept. 14, CBS News spokeswoman Sandy Genelius was still repeating, "We are confident about the chain of custody; we're confident in how we secured the documents." Oops.

Where do we go from here? Somebody has to get fired. Somebody is responsible for the fact that a major news organization did not for many days act like people who cared about whether they had gotten their facts straight. Instead they defended a hoax on the grounds that, though the facts were wrong, the underlying "story" was true. (Wasn't this Janet Cook's defense?).

But firing someone isn't the main thing CBS News needs to do. To restore the objectivity of their news organization, they need to bring more viewpoint diversity into the top echelons and into the reporting staff. None of us are gods. We all see through a looking glass darkly. Everyone has a point of view, and that affects how we perceive the truth, how we judge the evidence, who we trust.

Exposing our evidence to people with a variety of political viewpoints is the closest we can come to the place called objective truth. As CBS News has found, it is going to be exposed anyway. Might as well do it before it gets on the air.