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.