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Ernest Miller Ernest Miller pursues research and writing on cyberlaw, intellectual property, and First Amendment issues. Mr. Miller attended the U.S. Naval Academy before attending Yale Law School, where he was president and co-founder of the Law and Technology Society, and founded the technology law and policy news site LawMeme. He is a fellow of the Information Society Project at Yale Law School. Ernest Miller's blog postings can also be found @

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« Crisis in Journalism | Main | Where is the Transparency? - Crisis of Integrity Continues at CBS »

September 15, 2004

Rather Shows He is Unfit for Journalism

Posted by Ernest Miller

We don't really know yet if a denouement to the CBS memo crisis is nigh or whether it will come at all. What we do know is that CBS News anchor Dan Rather is acting with an arrogance that is unbecoming journalism. I hope if there is ever an investigation, Rather's responses to those who question his reporting is dealt with indepth.

Although Rather cannot be bothered to name the "experts" who "authenticated" the documents, or provide good quality copies to outside experts, he has plenty of time for an interview with the NY Observer regarding the ongoing scandal. Read and be amazed at conceit (Dan Rather To Bush: ‘Answer The Questions’). Indeed, if there will be a denouement, it may this interview that is responsible for it.

"With respect: answer the questions," said Dan Rather, the CBS News anchor. He was asking a direct question to President George W. Bush, his re-election campaign and his political allies in the press and on the Web. "We’ve heard what you have to say about the documents and what you’ve said and what your surrogates have said, but for the moment, answer the questions.

"I say that with respect," he added. "They’d be a lot stronger in their campaign if they did do that."

And why won't you answer many of the key questions from your critics, Rather? Your responses have been pathetic at best. I once asked with respect. Now I ask with contempt. I expect the answer is arrogance. What other reason could there be for not naming the experts consulted, or providing high quality copies of the documents, such as the copies sent to the "experts."
....Mr. Rather asserted that the lack of denial was itself evidence of the essential truth of his findings. The questions raised by his reporting, he said, have remained unanswered by the Bush administration: Did Mr. Bush get preferential treatment for the Texas Air National Guard? Was then-Lieutenant Bush suspended for failing to perform up to Texas and Air Guard standards? Did then-Lieutenant Bush refuse a direct order from his military superior to take a required examination?
Here is another question: how have you verified that the documents are authentic, in detail?

Whether or not a major news organization offered forged documents as a central element of their confirmation of allegations against the president is a legitimate and important question. Surely, any true journalist can see that. However, Rather essentially ignores these concerns.

Furthermore, the White House's silence on the documents may be some evidence of the underlying truth of the contents of the memos, but it is no proof at all that the documents are authentic, which is the point at issue. Of course, if you follow Rather's logic, then CBS's weak defense of the document's authenticity is evidence that they are not.

"It’s never been fully, completely denied by the Bush-Cheney campaign or even the White House that he was suspended for meeting the standards of the Air Force or that he didn’t show up for a physical," he said. "The longer we go without a denial of such things—this story is true."
Hmmm...the longer we go without knowing the names of CBS's experts then we can assume they don't exist?
On Friday, Sept. 10, Mr. Rather said on the CBS Evening News that he believed that some of the criticism came from people who were "partisan political operatives," implying that right-wing elements have managed to turn the story into a referendum on the story itself—and thus on Mr. Rather, a longtime target of conservative critics.

Mr. Rather said that the focus on questions over the veracity of the memos was a smoke screen perpetrated by right-wing allies of the Bush administration.

"I think the public, even decent people who may be well-disposed toward President Bush, understand that powerful and extremely well-financed forces are concentrating on questions about the documents because they can’t deny the fundamental truth of the story," he said. "If you can’t deny the information, then attack and seek to destroy the credibility of the messenger, the bearer of the information. And in this case, it’s change the subject from the truth of the information to the truth of the documents.

"This is your basic fogging machine, which is set up to cloud the issue, to obscure the truth," he said.

This is really the key element of the interview with regard to Rather's unsuitability to remain a journalist for a major news organization. Not only does he ignore valid and credible concerns that undermine his "reporting," he attacks his critics as partisan dupes. This is clear evidence that Rather is no longer able to weigh evidence objectively.

Strangely, Rather is accusing those who have concerns about his story of attacking the messenger. Yet, here is Rather attacking the messenger. I'll leave the psychology here to experts.

Mr. Rather said that he and his longtime CBS producer, Mary Mapes, had investigated the story for nearly five years, finally convincing a source to give them the National Guard documents. He did not reveal the name of the source, but Mr. Rather said he was a man who had been reluctant to come forth with them because he’d been harassed by political operatives. "Whether one believes it or not, this person believed that he and his family had been harassed and even threatened," he said. "We were not able to confirm that, but his fear was that what had already been threats, intimidation, if he gave up the documents, could get worse—maybe a lot worse." [emphasis added]
Professional courtesy from one paranoid to another, I guess.
....The story has fallen into a wormhole of seemingly unanswerable questions: Could an IBM Composer, Selectra or Executive have created the superscripts and proportional spacing? Would the Texas Air National Guard have had such expensive models? Was Killian the type to … type?

The responses have mostly depended on who you asked, although a large number of analysts have cast serious doubt on the documents, with CBS’s experts being the conspicuous exceptions.

What experts? If they existed, wouldn't CBS have named them by now? (Seriously. I think there are more experts. Why CBS hasn't named them, I don't know. Maybe because everytime they become public, they recant.)
If Mr. Rather’s defense sounded like a shout of "vast right-wing conspiracy," in this election year it was no longer as crazy as it sounded—particularly during a week when the Republican National Committee had already beat him to the conspiracy-mongering. When the Democratic National Committee launched a TV ad called "Fortunate Son" on Tuesday, Sept. 14, using a clip of Mr. Rather’s 60 Minutes sit-down with the former Lieutenant Governor of Texas, Ben Barnes, a spokesman for the Republican National Committee released a statement saying that "the video the Democrats released today is as creative and accurate as the memos they gave CBS."
Beat him to the conspiracy mongering? Dan Rather began the conspiracy mongering last Friday, when his CBS Evening News report accused critics of the documents to be "partisan political operatives," something that the author of this article reported a few paragraphs above. Consistent much? And what the heck is particularly conspiratorial about a spokesman for the RNC attacking a DNC ad? Um, isn't that politics as usual?
...."There are people who believe that there are little green folks in the center of the earth," he said. "I don’t believe that. It’s possible, but I don’t believe it." [said Rather]
Um, no, it isn't possible.
Mr. Rather said that it would require an exceptional amount of knowledge to craft a forgery—and not just the typographical kind. "You’d have to have an in-depth knowledge of Air Force manuals from 1971," he said. "You’d have to have Bush’s service record, you’d have to have the Air Force regulations from 1971, you’d have to know nearly all of the people involved directly at that time, including the squadron commander, who was Bush’s immediate superior, and his attitude at the time—you’d have to know all those things and weave all those things in."
Well, a number of experts consulted by major media organizations that are reputable dispute that the memos are consistent in those things. In any case, it would be nice if the experts CBS consulted would debate these other experts. Oh, that's right, they don't exist.
Mr. Rather said he was well aware of reports in The New York Times and The Washington Post that had finely detailed examinations of inconsistencies in the memos. And he said he took those reports seriously and appreciated the "competitive response" of other news organizations. But despite a number of experts calling the memos forgeries, he said that "the truth of these documents lies in the signatures and in the content, not just the typeface and the font-style. Let me emphasize once again, these are not exact sciences. Not like DNA or fingerprints."
Um, Dan, you do realize that experts hired by these other organizations, as well as experts hired by your organization dispute the signatures. Moreover, because you don't actually have access to the originals, you do realize that you cannot conclusively authenticate the signatures, don't you, Dan? If not, incompetence would be another reason Rather should no longer be a journalist for a major media organization.
That was why, he said, half of the experts agreed and the other half didn’t. That supposed stalemate left nothing but the truth at the center of the documents.
Where are these experts that agree? That typewriter repair guy? The software consultant who doesn't know how to use Word?
"In terms of the experts, you’re going to find an equal number of experts on the authenticity arguments," he said. "I don’t think that’s going to resolve the argument. The core truth of the reporting, I think it’s already clear that it’s true. And I think as time goes along, it will become even more apparent."
Hello, Earth to Dan. Earth to Dan. Come in, please. The core truth that is becoming more apparent is that the documents are forgeries and CBS is covering up its errors. This is clearly an example of poor observational and judgement skills. Again, not something you want in a journalist for a major news organization.
What about the Washington Post story of Sept. 14? The story pointed to discrepancies in military language, between the way Killian usually signed his letters and his signature on the memos CBS put on the air. And what about Mr. Bush’s address on one memo, "5000 Longmont #8, Houston," where he apparently no longer lived in 1972?

"Both of the allegations are wrong," he said. "I feel confident in saying that."

But when asked to offer a specific rebuttal to the observation about the address, Mr. Rather didn’t have one, saying only: "It’s our position, and I believe we demonstrated it …. The address doesn’t match the Bush service time frame—that’s their basic allegation? We think that’s wrong. We took a look at this, and we just think they’re wrong about it."

Blind assertions. That's good journalism. Yep.
Mr. Rather brought up Mr. Hodges, the former National Guard major who CBS News relied on to verify the contents of Killian’s memo. Mr. Hodges, a Bush supporter, had since declared the documents forgeries. "He doesn’t think the documents are real," said Mr. Rather. "As far as I can tell, he didn’t deny that they sounded familiar to him. If he did, he didn’t confirm it to The New York Times."
So, the claim isn't that Hodges verified the documents, but that they sounded familiar. Okay. How different is that from, something along the lines of (not actual quote) "if he wrote it, then that is the way he must have felt." Perhaps Rather would discuss the point of not showing the memos to Hodges, or mentioning that some experts by CBS had concerns about their authenticity. Not to mention Hodges' claim that CBS said the memos were in Killian's own handwriting, which might prejudice a witness just a bit.
And what if it was discovered that the documents were indeed forged?

"If," said Mr. Rather, reiterating "if," "if at any time we’re able to come up with information that demonstrates that we’re wrong, we’ll report it. We won’t wait. But I don’t think it’s going to happen. The story is true."

If I had been holding my breathe, I would have been dead days ago.
Mr. Rather said that he and Ms. Mapes had heard about the National Guard memos as long ago as 1999.

"We eventually came in contact with somebody who said he knew about the documents, and it took a while to get in contact with the man who was supposed to have had the documents," he said. "It took a long time for us to create a reportorial relationship with him in which he trusted us, and at the same time we were checking him out to see if he was a trustworthy person."

While Mr. Rather and Ms. Mapes were able to glean the contents of the memos before they actually acquired them, and while they worked to convince the source to hand over the memos, he said they tried to verify the facts in them so they could be sure they were on the right trail.

"Within the last few months," he said, "we got a look at the documents, and we said we’d like to have a copy of the documents."

He said they met the source in a "remote location." "[The source] said they were copies of the documents, and he told us some of the history of where they came from and how they came to him," Mr. Rather said.

Shades of Woodward and Bernstein. How excited Rather must have been. Mysterious sources meeting in a remote location. The documents had to be authentic! And, what a great scene it would make in the movie.
Finally, after showing the reporting to CBS News president Andrew Hayward, senior vice president Betsy West and 60 Minutes Wednesday executive producer Josh Howard, Mr. Rather said he went to officials at the White House.
Ah, responsibility of the higher-ups. Though I doubt they will actually accept any.
"Look, we have accumulated a body of information based on some long reporting that lays out a different picture of then-Lieutenant Bush’s service," he said, "and we now have documents which to our own satisfaction we believe to be authentic, we believe to be true …. These are unpleasant truths. But they are truths. There was and is no joy in reporting them. But part of what reporters are supposed to do is ask questions, dig for facts and, when truths are found, share them with the public and, when called upon to do so, speak truth to power. This we did."
Hah, hah, hah. "Speak truth to power." Hah, hah. When will someone go to Rather and explain the "unpleasant truths" to him?
In the last week, a Newsweek report suggested that the CBS source was Bill Burkett, a former National Guard employee who, since the late 1990’s, has claimed to have overheard a conversation in which Mr. Bush’s records were to be "cleansed" and who also claimed to have seen the files in a trash can. It has been established that Ms. Mapes spoke with Mr. Burkett for the 60 Minutes story. Mr. Burkett, who lives in Abilene, Tex., has been called a "discredited source" by the Bush White House. Mr. Rather wouldn’t comment on Mr. Burkett as the source, but in an interview, Mr. Howard, the executive producer, seemed aware of Mr. Burkett’s reaction to the Newsweek allegations.

"I know that Burkett is talking about at least having his lawyer call and discuss this with them," he said.

Mr. Burkett could not be reached for comment.

How about that. His lawyer has been reached, however, and did not issue a denial. Guess that means it is true, right Dan?
...But inside the West 57th Street offices of CBS News, some staffers felt the organization had acted like a ponderous sloth batting away a swarm of flies. They think the network had already lost.

"I think it’s too late to make a difference," said one angry CBS News staffer. "These guys lost the debate last week by taking a beating for 48 hours on Web and cable before making feeble attempts to defend themselves." The 60 Minutes defense, said the staffer, "should have been on last week and should have been much better illustrated." [italics in original]

Did Mr. Rather worry that the current scandal would tarnish his reputation, especially in the twilight of his career? Yes, said Mr. Rather, he did worry—but he also seemed to worry for his colleagues in the press.

"I certainly care about it," he said. "To me, even people who aren’t inclined for one reason or another to like me know I’m a lifetime reporter trying to be independent and to report without fear or favor, to be an honest broker of information. On the times when I’ve failed, either because I didn’t ask enough of the right questions, or didn’t ask the right questions, I, and almost every other journalist, have taken a fair enough criticism for, in many people’s judgments, not asking the right questions, or not asking the right questions strong enough, long enough in the time preceding the war. And I think some of that criticism is justified. I do not except myself in that criticism."

Mr. Rather said that he was sure that the credibility of CBS News would hold up after the memo scandal had passed.

"I think over the long haul, this will be consistent with our history and our traditions and reputation," he said. "We took heat during the McCarthy time, during Vietnam, during civil rights, during Watergate. We haven’t always been right, but our record is damn good."

Yes, what a wonderful legacy you are pissing away ... and I wouldn't be so sure about the credibility part.

Comments (5) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Blogging and Journalism


1. joe on September 16, 2004 12:59 AM writes...

He also, at some point, refered to bloggers as "people in their pajamas."

Permalink to Comment

2. Ernest Miller on September 16, 2004 01:16 AM writes...


Unless I missed it, that was a former CBS executive who made that comment.

Permalink to Comment

3. Seth Finkelstein on September 16, 2004 01:31 AM writes...

Right - in specific, Jonathan Klein.

Quoted as (I haven't tracked down the transcript, this is second-hand):

"Bloggers have no checks and balances . . . [it's] a guy sitting in his living room in his pajamas."


Permalink to Comment

4. joe on September 18, 2004 03:12 AM writes...

Ah, yes... I had heard second-hand. Thanks, Seth (and Ernie, of course)

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5. jeff on September 18, 2004 05:54 AM writes...

Starting in the 60's/70's, the media has switched from anonymous reporters with quoted sources, to quoted reporters with anonymous sources.

It's Dan Rather you are supposed to trust, not the truth, or his methods, or his conclusions. Same goes for President Bush and his political machine. (And Kerry's just to be fair.)

Fact based reasoning in public discourse has been disgarded long ago, much to the chagrin of the truth.

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