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Dan Rather: Still Not Getting It

On Larry King’s program, Dan Rather insisted again that the 60 Minutes story about George W. Bush’s National Guard “service” — based in part on the documents that CBS failed to prove authentic – was fair and accurate. Of the panel CBS selected to investigate the debacle, he said:

(A)mong the things they concluded after months of investigation and spending millions of dollars, they could not determine that the documents were fraudulent. Important point, that we don’t know whether the documents were fraudulent or not.

Meanwhile, over at Huffington Post, Rather’s producer, Mary Mapes, writes:

We reported that since these documents were copies, not originals, they could not be fully authenticated, at least not in the legal sense. They could not be subjected to tests to determine the age of the paper or the ink. We did get corroboration on the content and support from a couple of longtime document analysts saying they saw nothing indicating that the memos were not real.

Good grief. The journalistic standard, not just when making a major claim against a sitting president in the middle of a campaign but for all reports that can damage people’s reputations, is not whether the other side can prove the documents are fake. It’s whether the journalist can persuasively show that they are authentic. CBS failed, miserably, in its duty.

Look. Bush ducked out on some of his National Guard duties, and got preferential treatment to join the Guard instead of facing actual combat. The verified reporting by CBS and other news organizations leaves no serious doubt on those issues.

But in the 60 Minutes story Mapes and Rather, who had done some great journalism in their careers, ducked out on their responsibility to the craft — and to their audience. Their continuing defense of their malpractice is more depressing than anything else.

By the way, the blog triumphalism that emerged after “Rathergate” was misguided, too. The traditional media (and at least one PR firm) played significant roles in this event. See Michael Cornfield’s analysis; as well as commentary from Jon Garfunkel and Seth Finkelstein.) Bloggers didn’t debunk anything, not persuasively. What they did do was to raise crucial questions that, in the end CBS could not answer sufficiently to justify its reporting.

19 Comments on “Dan Rather: Still Not Getting It”

  1. #1 Joe Helfrich
    on Sep 21st, 2007 at 4:01 pm

    I don’t know. Sure, the documents used in the report are flawed and shouldn’t have been used, but the content of the documents was generally accurate, according to Marian Carr Knox, the secretary at the base.

    I think the uproar over the authenticity of the documents was used to defuse and distract from the real issues raised by the report, and I think that overall, Rather and Mapes got a raw deal.

  2. #2 Dan Gillmor
    on Sep 21st, 2007 at 4:05 pm

    Joe, I think you’re missing the point…

  3. #3 paul_lukasiak
    on Sep 22nd, 2007 at 12:13 pm

    Joe isn’t missing the point. Rather (and Mapes) made a mistake — they believed a trusted source regarding the origins of the documents that were provided to them, and were more concerned with ensuring that the documents were consistent with the facts than with technical questions.

    But journalists are equally careless about verifying the factual basis of what they report everyday — and aren’t crucified for it the way that Mapes and Rather were. Indeed, sometimes journalist just make stuff up, as Michael Dobbs and Howard Kurtz do in a washington post article that raised questions about the Killian memos…

    Factual problems. A CBS document purportedly from Killian ordering Bush to report for his annual physical, dated May 4, 1972, gives Bush’s address as “5000 Longmont #8, Houston.” This address was used for many years by Bush’s father, George H.W. Bush. National Guard documents suggest that the younger Bush stopped using that address in 1970 when he moved into an apartment, and did not use it again until late 1973 or 1974, when he moved to Cambridge, Mass., to attend Harvard Business School.

    There is literally NOTHING in “National Guard documents” that remotely suggest that Bush used the Longmont Avenue address in “late 1973.” The only addresses shown for Bush in “late 1973″ are at Harvard (with the wrong zip code) and in Houston on Westeimer Ave. The Westheimer Avenue address is used on Jan 30th, 1974, and the Harvard address (with the right zip code) is used on May 1, 1974. Only one 1974 document (dated March 7) uses the Longmont Ave address — and given that March is in the middle of the spring semester, its extremely unlikely that Bush was “using” the Longmont Ave address at all. (What is likely is that mail was sent in March 1974 to what Bush’s records say — incorrectly by that time — was Bush’s parents address because Bush was not responding to other mail sent to him by the Air Force. )

    In other words, Dobbs and Kurtz made something up out of whole cloth… NOTHING in the records suggest in any way, shape or form that Bush was using the Longmont Ave address in late 1973. Does it matter to anyone that Dobbs and Kurtz flat out lied in their efforts to discredit Rather and Mapes?

    What happened to Mapes and Rather was a witchhunt, pure and simple. They weren’t perfect, but they did not deserve the treatment they received from the mainstream media, CBS, or people like YOU who STILL don’t have the first clue about the facts concerning this story.

  4. #4 Dan Gillmor
    on Sep 22nd, 2007 at 2:28 pm

    Paul, I’m not defending journalists who make stuff up. What gives you the idea that I am?

    I’m convinced and have been for a long time — not by relying on these documents in any way but by reading other, verified material (as well as making what I consider reasonable inferences from the fact that crucial records continue to be hidden from public scrutiny) — that Bush was AWOL, if not in law certainly in spirit, and that he got special favors to stay out of Vietnam, again contrary to Bush family/supporter assertions.

    But to excuse journalists who are “more concerned with ensuring that the documents were consistent with the facts than with technical questions” is to avoid the journalistic issues. If the documents couldn’t be authenticated beyond a doubt they should not have been such a major underpinning of that report. By leaving a hole in their work they created the conditions under which their enemies could plausibly discredit the entire thing — an incredible lapse given how often journalists use the same logic to discredit what other people have done or said.

    No doubt, the right-wing bloggers and noise machine did try to create a witchhunt. Problem is, there was some journalistic black magic to find in this case.

  5. #5 paul_lukasiak
    on Sep 22nd, 2007 at 7:13 pm

    Paul, I’m not defending journalists who make stuff up. What gives you the idea that I am?

    I guess because you seem to think that its okay to go on a witchhunt for what is, for all intents and purposes, a very minor infraction that happened despite a good faith effort to verify the authenticity of the documents themselves.

    CBS was given document whose authenticity it had no reason to doubt. Burkett had been a reliable source on other stories — especially the “ghost soldier” story reported by USA Today — and George Conn was his friend who would have no reason to give Burkett forged documents. Document examiners said thee was simply no way to decisively authenticate Xerox copies of documents, yet CBS knew that the narrative described in the memos seemed to be consistent with the facts in the public record, and did what they could to verify the contents of the memos, and ascertain whether the signatures were consistent with those of Killian. They read the memos to Hodges who verified their content. They showed them to Dan Bartlett, who for years has been the White House contact person on Bush’s military years, who raised no objections and called them “old news”.

    What CBS didn’t do was what absolutely NO news organization does — put significant effort into an attempt to disprove its own reporting prior to doing the report. And that is really what this is all about — crucifying Mapes and Rather because they didn’t subject the story to the kind of scrutiny that NO ONE subjects their reporting to.

    So they went with the story — and “the story” was accurate, even though it turned out that the provenance of the documents was questionable. And all hell broke loose when some complete wingnuts started making bogus claims about “proof” that they were forged, and Drudge picked it up, and then the mainstream media started simply repeating what the wingnuts were saying — or making stuff up (like Dobbs/Kurtz) out of whole cloth.

    CBS was assaulted with an unprecedented assault for which it was completely unprepared — and for every Joseph Newcomer, there was a thousand idiots making completely specious claims and accusations — and the mainstream media did nothing to separate the wheat from the chaff.

    CBS was essentially outflanked…. the attack that it prepared for (defending the facts that underlay the memos) never happened; instead the attack concentrated on what was, for all intents and purposes, irrelevant. And while you might think that

    The journalistic standard, not just when making a major claim against a sitting president in the middle of a campaign but for all reports that can damage people’s reputations, is not whether the other side can prove the documents are fake. It’s whether the journalist can persuasively show that they are authentic.

    its not. The most important journalistic standard is whether the story is true or not…whether what is described in documents reflects the larger reality, or whether you are unfairly smearing someone based on incomplete information.

    Journalism needs to be about TRUTH Dan… not about what anonymous “administration sources” are leaking, or what “some people are saying”. You may be satisfied with “journalism” that covers its ass while reporting lies — journalism that simply distributes the talking points of the best organized propagandists.

    Personally, I want TRUTH. And if someone screws up in pursuit of truth, I don’t thing they should be thrown to the wolves when so many “journalists” are allowed to promulgate lies and disinformation because they cite “anonymous sources” — or make things up.

    Dan Rather gets it. And Mary Mapes gets it. Journalists make mistakes. But some people get destroyed despite the fact that their story was essentially true — while others can spout lies and disinformation on a continuing bases and not merely survive, but thrive based on those lies.

  6. #6 mikem
    on Sep 23rd, 2007 at 1:03 am

    “its not. The most important journalistic standard is whether the story is true or not…whether what is described in documents reflects the larger reality, or whether you are unfairly smearing someone based on incomplete information.”

    That is an incredible statement. Phony documents are not important in journalism, but whether or not they reflect unproven accusations that they are meant to prove?

    Dan Rather and Mapes, and CBS, committed many more journalistic and ethical sins, including what to me is their most obviously and shameful sin: Describing the then not named Bill Burkett as an “unimpeachable source”. That was when they thought that they would forever get away with stonewalling. They lied to the American public and voters and assured us that their source for the documents was not a partisan.

    And with all this “journalistic” interest in proving that Bush received favorable treatment in the National Guard, not one of those journalists cared to investigate what type of discharge Kerry received before it was upgaraded during the Carter amnesty.

    Incredible and shameful.

  7. #7 Jon Garfunkel
    on Sep 23rd, 2007 at 6:32 am

    Paul,

    I don’t expect Dan or anybody else to reply to your satisfaction here.
    Reading the CBS Investigation today, I was surprised to see your name there. It was you who tipped off Mary Mapes on August 23rd about the new batch of documents.

    That doesn’t impugn you, but it does now explain to me why you are still passionated about defending Mapes.

    The report explains that the first people to raise questions about the fonts were two of the document examiners Mapes contacted, before the story aired.

    And then for Mapes to subsequently question the industry of the “right wing blogosphere” (as well as Joseph Newcomer, neither a right-winger, or for strictly speaking, a blogger) for doing the font analysis which she had previously ignored, is chutzpah.

    Jon

  8. #8 Joe Helfrich
    on Sep 23rd, 2007 at 10:32 am

    Paul’s made some of my points, but I think I come in somewhere between him and Dan. The papers should have been better vetted before they were used. Rather and Mapes should take some heat–but not as much as they did–for not verifying them better.

    The simplest way to do that would have been for an FOI request for those particular files. Substantial differences between what they got and what they had would have been interesting–and the stories about what papers were lost and classified and edited would have been good supporting material as well.

    But the core of the story could and should have been Ben Barnes comments, combined with Knox’s memories of the CO’s concerns. There were plenty of ways to tell the story without relying on the questionable documents. Using the papers was bad journalism, but I don’t think it was a capital offense when combined with Knox’s recollection.

    The papers became a way to overwhelm the other legitimate issues raised by the report. CBS’s failure to defend the rest of the report, and the other major news outlets only talking about the controversy around the papers was the most significant error. It allowed the parts of the story that were true and unconnected (or only tangentially related) to the documents to be lost in the shuffle, and allowed the Republican’s noise machine to reinforce the “left wing media” perception, even as the response of the media at large put the lie to it.

  9. #9 Vigilante
    on Sep 23rd, 2007 at 10:45 am

    Personally, I find it embarrassing that Dan Rather is still dragging his “anchor” around. You could say his leaking craft has run aground on the shoals. Or make that SCHORR. In any case, this morning, Daniel Schorr speaks for me on Rather.

  10. #10 paul_lukasiak
    on Sep 23rd, 2007 at 11:03 am

    Jon….

    what you perceive as my “defense” of Mapes has nothing to do with my role as the person who pointed Mapes to Linda Starr — the person who pointed Mapes to Burkett. Mapes (and other journalists) had been asking me about rumored “other documents” for week/months. Despite the fact that I’d been told directly on numerous previous occasion by Starr that she’d seen additional documents, I never disclosed that to anyone. Only after Starr stated publicly, in her blog, that she had seen additional document did I say anything to Mapes about them — and only in response to a question. In other words, Starr’s claim was a matter of public record — and it was only when it was a matter of public record that I mentioned it to anyone.

    What bothers me is that Mapes acted in good faith — and was crucified for screwing up. Journalists screw up all the time, and get away with it. Hell, close to 3800 Americans might still be alive today if the entire journalistic (with a few notable exceptions) hadn’t screwed up — Mary Mapes mistake didn’t cost anyone their lives. Howard Kurtz and Michael Dobbs can make stuff up out of whole cloth in an article attacking Mapes credibility — and can still keep their jobs.

    People think that Mapes does not acknowledge making mistakes — but she does. She also, however, argues that she acted in good faith, and that she was treated unfairly, and to the Dan Gilmors of the world, that is unacceptable.

    ***********

    The simplest way to do that would have been for an FOI request for those particular files.

    unfortunately, the reported source “Killian memos” was not official documents, but Killian’s personal files– which of course are not subject to an FOIA request. Bush’s own military records do back up the narrative described by the Killian memos.

  11. #11 Jon Garfunkel
    on Sep 23rd, 2007 at 11:04 am

    Joe — a google search for Bush military records brings up as the very first result Paul Lukasiak’s extensive documenting of them, and also numerous results which point out that President Bush authorized the release of his records on February 2004. The CBS report gives a lengthy report about the genesis of the investigation into Bush’s military files.

    The premise of the Killian documents was that they were personal memos and not stored in the military records.

  12. #12 Dan Gillmor
    on Sep 23rd, 2007 at 11:46 am

    Paul, I agree that they acted in what they considered good faith. (I’ve made mistakes in my journalism days, and I was never acting in bad faith when I made them.) That’s not the issue.

    You say Mapes — who like Rather has done brilliant journalism in her career, which makes this so unfortunate — is being pilloried unfairly for screwing up. But come on, she doesn’t really admit the truly serious errors in this story. She’s still saying that the standard should be that someone has to prove the documents phony, when that violates common sense and (at least my) journalistic principles.

    Let’s agree to disagree on this.

  13. #13 Jon Garfunkel
    on Sep 23rd, 2007 at 12:45 pm

    Paul — thanks for the clarification. Yes of course your work in the Bush-AWOL research goes beyond what the CBS report covered; that as well justifies your passion. And I’m not saying it’s wrong. I just hadn’t been aware about your incidental role before in the chain of events.

    Curiously enough, the editor of Online Journal took umbrage at the imprecise way that the CBS report had portrayed their work. Linda Starr was no blogger but “an Online Journal assistant editor whose work mainly involves research, compiling the news alerts sent to the Online Journal Mailing List and appearing as a guest on various radio and webcast programs” and OJ itself was no online newsletter but “globally read online publication—or zine, if you wish.”

    Oh well. Our inadequate vocabulary for the emerging digital media fails us once again.

  14. #14 mikem
    on Sep 23rd, 2007 at 3:13 pm

    “I agree that they acted in what they considered good faith. ”

    Doesn’t describing the then unnamed Bill Burkett as an unimpeachable source preclude any consideration of Mapes having acted in good faith?

    Maybe I’m missing something here. Was Bill Burkett an unimpeachable source in your opinion?

  15. #15 paul_lukasiak
    on Sep 23rd, 2007 at 3:50 pm

    Doesn’t describing the then unnamed Bill Burkett as an unimpeachable source preclude any consideration of Mapes having acted in good faith?

    I could find no record of either Mapes or Rather using the words “unimpeachable” to describe their source for the documents. CBS News did issue a press release with that phrasing (it should also be noted that one of four people — but only one of four — who were on a conference call claim that Mapes used the word “unimpeachable” to describe her source. ) Nevertheless, the right wing is full of website where you can find claims that both Rather and Mapes used that term.

    Which suggests that Rather and Mapes using the words “unimpeachable source” is one more example of the mythomania surrounding this whole issue — but feel free to prove me wrong on that, and provide a non-wingnut link that cites either of them using those words at a specific date and time.

  16. #16 mikem
    on Sep 23rd, 2007 at 4:47 pm

    Excuse me, Paul, but since Mapes was the one in contact with Burkett just who else would CBS depend on to vet their then *unknown* source? The Kinko salesman? As for your date and time demand how about 9/23/07 at 3:50pm with you as the source: ” it should also be noted that one of four people — but only one of four — who were on a conference call claim that Mapes used the word “unimpeachable” to describe her source.”
    Given CBS’ description, with Mapes as the contact, and your admission, just why are you trying to defend Mapes as an ethical journalist? For that matter how could any ethical journalist accept “evidence” in copy form from someone as openly partisan and discredited (even recently prior) as Bill Burkett without allowing the public to judge the credibility of her source? Why hide Burkett from the public, and after bringing him together with Democratic Party officials in secret, to boot?
    Ethical? In good faith? Incredible.

  17. #17 paul_lukasiak
    on Sep 24th, 2007 at 10:40 am

    “Excuse me, Paul, but since Mapes was the one in contact with Burkett just who else would CBS depend on to vet their then *unknown* source? The Kinko salesman?”

    Only one person says that Mapes ever used the word “unimpeachable” to describe her source. That person’s account is contradicted by the account of three other people who were part of that conversation.

    Yet you have stated as an unqualified fact that Mapes said “unimpeachable source.”

    If you bother to read Mapes book, it is clear that she is aware that Burkett had been subjected to a right-wing smear campaign — but she felt comfortable with him as a source of documents because of his overwhelming sense of personal ethics. Based on that, I don’t think she would have described Burkett as “unimpeachable” when there are so many other phrases that she could have used (like “completely reliable”).

    My point here is that people make unqualified claims are Rather and Mapes that they cannot substantiate — these claims get repeated because no one ever bothers to challenge them. Most of what most people think they know about the “Killian memos story” is either dead wrong, or distortions of the truth.

  18. #18 mikem
    on Sep 24th, 2007 at 12:37 pm

    OMG

    Roll on, true believer. Everything is going to be all right.

  19. #19 James Morris
    on Sep 26th, 2007 at 8:21 pm

    Greg Palast is also slamming Rather, but for *not* sticking by his story. See http://www.gregpalast.com/dan-rather-tased-and-confused/ for his rant.

    BTW: I’d be interested in your opinion of Palast.