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Monday, September 20, 2004

CBS admits being duped, apologizes

CBS apologized today for broadcasting unauthenticated documents questioning George W. Bush's National Guard Service.

The documents were broadcast by CBS Sept. 8, after CBS received the documents from a source who wished to remain anonymous, and the documents were cleared by the White House without question.

Within hours of the CBS 60 Minutes broadcast, Harry MacDougald, a North Carolina attorney and Republican activist, wrote a blog entry questioning the memos' legitimacy. MacDougald, writing anonymously as "Buckhead" for www.freerepublic.com, was "outed" by the Los Angeles Times last week.

The CBS memos were said to be written by Lt. Col. Jerry Killian in 1972 and 1973. MacDougald pointed out that the memos were typed using proportionately-spaced fonts, a technology which is associated with the computer age and not typewriters used in the early 1970's.

CBS initially strongly defended the documents' authenticity, but backed down last week after an interview with Killian's secretary, Marian Carr Knox. Knox said the sentiments contained in the documents–that Killian was under pressure to "sugarcoat" Bush's record– were accurate, but that she did not believe the documents themselves were the true originals.

CBS has come under heavy fire since the Sep. 8 show with some calling it a "landmark" event in journalism history.

Personally, I would hesitate to throw CBS into the same mix of journalistic scandals which hit The New Republic, the New York Times and USA Today in recent years. Stories written by Stephen Glass, Jayson Blair and Jack Kelley were all deliberate frauds. CBS was clearly caught up in an accidental deception.

In their rush to get a scoop, CBS broadcast the documents too quickly, with too little effort to verify their reliability. It was very sloppy–but there's a difference between sloppiness and malice. The biggest problem with CBS's judgment on this issue, actually, was their continued insistence the documents were accurate until a few days ago.

Expert after expert came forward to testify the documents were fake, and CBS wasn't able to answer basic questions about the documents' origin. Had CBS said right off the bat they were a victim to a hoax, the hit to the network's credibility would not have been as severe. As Jeff Birnbaum of the Washington Post said, "All of us have made mistakes. The first rule of journalism is to admit your mistakes."

One issue that has been sidetracked by the whole CBS brouhaha is the original story: George W. Bush's failure to fulfill his National Guard obligations.

Dan Rather noted no one disputes the story's basic premise: the Bush family pulled strings to get a relatively cushy National Guard assignment for George W., and George W. subsequently failed to complete the requirements of his service. For the latest on this, read the New York Times summary below.

Bill Burkett, a disgruntled National Guardsman, has been mentioned in recent New York Times and Associated Press reports as the suspected source of the documents. An interview with Burkett will be broadcast on CBS tonight.


At 10:06 PM, Blogger Really said...

"CBS was clearly caught up in an accidental deception." You actually believe that? The people at CBS who were supposed to authenticate the documents knew from the beginning that they wouldn't hold up and told them not to use them, but they did anyway, and then went so far as to defended them. Have you missed that whole part of the story?

At 10:36 PM, Blogger Outrage said...

I'm not going to defend CBS' news judgment in this case. As Michael Dobbs reported in the Washington Post, "The man CBS News touted as the 'unimpeachable source' of explosive documents about President Bush's National Guard service turns out to be a former Guard officer with a history of self-described mental problems who has denounced Bush as a liar with 'demonic personality shortcomings'"

In addition to ignoring any alarm bells about their source, CBS also ignored, apparently, the advice of some of their own experts who questioned the documents authenticity.

But to suggest CBS was part of some deliberate conspiracy to run down the President–in the absence of any direct supporting evidence–is irresponsible. Dan Rather's foolish effort to defend the documents in the face of criticism illustrated naivety (and perhaps a little internal bias), but I don't believe for a second that Rather would have broadcast the documents had he known they were fake.


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