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Media Investigates Authenticity of Memos Released by CBS

September 16, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT


TERENCE SMITH: Last Wednesday, CBS News’ 60 Minutes broadcast a controversial segment, reported by Anchorman Dan Rather, that questioned President Bush’s admission to, and service in, the Texas Air National Guard during the Vietnam era.

The program featured an interview with Ben Barnes, who claimed that, as speaker of the Texas legislature in 1968, he secured a highly coveted spot in the guard for George W. Bush. Such units were rarely called up for service in Vietnam.

BEN BARNES, 60 Minutes: And I recommended a lot of people for the–for the National Guard during the Vietnam era as speaker of the House and as lieutenant governor.

DAN RATHER, 60 Minutes: And you recommended George W. Bush?

BEN BARNES, 60 Minutes: Yes, I did.

TERENCE SMITH: Another part of the report centered on newly discovered memos, allegedly from the personal files of Bush’s commander, Lt. Colonel Jerry Killian. The memos said Bush defied an order to appear for a physical and that the colonel felt pressured to “sugarcoat” Bush’s performance in the guard because he was the son of a prominent politician.

Even before the broadcast was over, the memos’ authenticity had been called into question, setting off a full-throated media frenzy.

At issue: whether the type fonts and spacing — suspiciously like that of a modern word processor — could have been produced in the early 1970’s. CBS said it had experts vouch for the documents; many Internet sites and news organizations quickly found other analysts who debunked the documents — and some of the experts consulted by CBS began to backtrack.

BRIAN ROSS: The two experts hired by CBS News say the network ignored concerns they raised prior to the broadcast about the disputed National Guard records.

CBS initially defended the reporting of Rather and his highly regarded producer, Mary Mapes. But the network has now begun to acknowledge that the documents may not be authentic.

Last night 60 Minutes aired a follow up report, this time interviewing Lt. Colonel Killian’s longtime secretary, Marian Knox. She says that while she believes the memos are not authentic, the thoughts expressed in them are.

DAN RATHER, 60 Minutes (9/15): So with these memos, you know that you didn’t type them.

MARIAN KNOX, 60 Minutes: I know that I didn’t type them; however, the information in those is correct.

DAN RATHER, 60 Minutes: Few, if any, things that I ask you about will be more important than this point: you say you didn’t type these memos, definitely you didn’t type these memos.

MARIAN KNOX, 60 Minutes: Not these particular ones.

DAN RATHER, 60 Minutes: Did you type ones like this?

MARIAN KNOX, 60 Minutes: Yes.

DAN RATHER, 60 Minutes: Containing the same or identical information?

MARIAN KNOX, 60 Minutes: The same information, yes.

TERENCE SMITH: The controversy has been grist for the media mill — especially on the Internet and from conservative publications and commentators who have long considered Dan Rather biased.

JOE SCARBOROUGH, MSNBC: But did Dan Rather rush into passing this bad information onto you because of a bias? Sadly, I suspect that could be the case.

TERENCE SMITH: Though First Lady Laura Bush called the documents forgeries, the Bush White House has not officially questioned the authenticity of the documents.

However the White House spokesman has alleged campaign dirty tricks:

SCOTT McCLELLAN: I believe that Democrats and the Kerry campaign are behind these old, recycled attacks on the president’s service, absolutely.

TERENCE SMITH: McClellan offered no evidence for his assertion and despite repeated calls from outsiders, CBS has refused to reveal the source of the memos.

TERENCE SMITH: Joining me now are: Ken Auletta, who writes the Annals of Communications column for the New Yorker; and Susan Tifft, a professor of journalism and public policy at Duke University, and a former national writer and associate editor of Time Magazine. CBS News was invited to participate in this discussion, but declined.

Welcome to you both. Ken Auletta, what do you think of this story, and what do you think of the way CBS has handled it so far?

KEN AULETTA: I think CBS has handled it much like John Kerry handled the swift boat attack in August.

They were late to respond to the charges that were made about their veracity. Now, it’s fair… in fairness to CBS, they have Barnes’ coming on, the former speaker of the House, saying that he got, he used political influence to get Bush in the National Guard, is a very compelling and important story. And CBS deserves credit for that, but there have been questions about their documents, and about whether they rushed to get that story on the air.

Now, at least two of those four experts they cited have questioned and said they questioned CBS before they aired or they should air.

So I think CBS going from a Sept.10 statement saying we have full confidence in our report to a statement yesterday, a week later, that they don’t have full confidence and they have to look at it, they should have come to that position sooner.

TERENCE SMITH: Susan Tifft, where does that leave CBS as we speak?

SUSAN TIFFT: Well, I think it leaves it in a place where its credibility obviously is on the line. You know, I was struck in thinking about this issue about so many instances in the past, some of them in the distant past, some in the more recent past, of all the times when our news-gathering techniques are the things that are targeted, not necessarily the truth of the story.

For instance, the Food Lion story that ABC aired in 1993. And it was challenged by Food Lion, not on the basis of whether it was true or not. In fact, most of the allegations turned out to be true, but it was about the way the network gathered its information.

I think oftentimes that’s exactly where news organizations trip up, and in this case CBS certainly did. What it needs to do now is to try to regain its credibility by coming out as fast and furious as it can with whatever it knows about who was behind these documents, how they tried to authenticate them, any other information that would make for transparency so that viewers know exactly where this information is coming from.

TERENCE SMITH: Ken Auletta, what do you think of Dan Rather’s central argument in that clip that we showed from last night in which he was arguing in effect that if the documents may be questionable, but the thrust of his story is true? Is that persuasive to you?

KEN AULETTA: It wouldn’t be persuasive to any editor that I know. I mean, I couldn’t go to an editor and say, look, I believe this story is true, but I can’t prove it.

That won’t fly. And I think Dan Rather when pride is removed from that, I think he’s had a very distinguished career as a journalist — he would recognize that as not an argument you could sell to a respectable editor.

TERENCE SMITH: Ken, let me ask you and then you, Susan, how could this happen?

How could an organization such as CBS News not deal with the question of the veracity of documents, such as these, on which it was going to base a story? Ken, you first.

KEN AULETTA: Well, first of all, they went to some experts. Maybe they didn’t go to enough experts or the right experts.

But they went to some who confirmed these were real documents. They had people saying that Bush got in the guard for political reasons, favoritism.

They knew that the Bush White House was very tardy in releasing documents. In fact, they’re still releasing documents that they once said they didn’t have.

So lots of questions about Bush’s record here, much more questions about Bush’s National Guard service than about John Kerry’s heroism, by the way – a legitimate issue. In the competitive world of journalism, with so many media outlets, you race. Sometimes you race too fast. You don’t pin your facts down.

And then when it comes out and people start accusing you of being a fraud and a liar and Dan Rather says typical of you, you’re just a conservative — I mean a liberal fighting us conservatives, which is the traditional argument used against him, your pride gets in the way.

And your chest puffs up and you say, full speed ahead. And maybe you shouldn’t.


SUSAN TIFFT: I think it’s important to think about the atmosphere in which this occurred, which is obviously very partisan atmosphere, but as Ken said, there really has been a race and rush on this story.

In fact, I think one of the indications of that is the day that the first 60 Minutes segment aired, the Boston Globe had a long and very detailed story about the very same thing with lots of evidence, in fact, some new evidence.

But I think when you ask the question about how to authenticate something like this, there are lots of different ways. The experts, yes – but when I saw the segment last night, I had to ask myself, why didn’t they find this secretary before when they were doing the story? I mean, in a way it’s kind of an obvious question.

Did she come forward after first segment aired? Is that how they found her? Why didn’t they find her before? Bu I think it’s also important to remember that this is not the first time, of course, this kind of thing has happened. 60 Minutes, in fact, in 1997 aired a segment on drug smuggling that was based in part on a memo that turned out later to the bogus — ended up having to apologize on air about it.

But, you know, that did not occur in this very heated, partisan atmosphere, several months before an election campaign. So the feeling about it is very, very different.

TERENCE SMITH: Ken Auletta, what should CBS do now? If, for example, their own investigation determines that these documents are not genuine, should they then go ahead and disclose the source?

KEN AULETTA: Well, that’s a tougher one. I mean, if you had someone who gave you information on a confidential basis, you don’t have a right to release that person’s name, in my judgment…

TERENCE SMITH: Even if that information proves to be incorrect?

KEN AULETTA: Well, if the person is lying, then… you have to back up, I think, Terry. You have to say, who is going to do the investigation for CBS?

Are they going to do it internally with the same people who reported this, or are they going to what they did say in the early ’80s with Bud Benjamin, a very esteemed producer, when they asked him to investigate a Westmoreland documentary.

Or are they going to do what CNN did in 1998 with Floyd Abrams, the outside attorney, investigating their charges in the Tailgate [Tailwind] Documentary, and so I think you got a basic question: Does CBS go outside or to an esteemed person inside and get a kind of an independent investigation of what really happened here?

TERENCE SMITH: Susan Tifft, what do you think on the sources issue? If indeed the documents are demonstrated not to be genuine, if indeed CBS therefore concludes it has been duped by someone, by its source, what do they do about that?

SUSAN TIFFT: I think the bottom line is that you… your first obligation is to, in this case, your viewer. I agree with Ken, that you don’t just give up a confidential source.That’s really a sacred thing in journalism.

But I think if CBS finds that the source knowingly misled CBS, I think that the contract between the source and journalist ends there. And they owe it to their viewers to reveal who that source is. And as far as, you know, what kinds of investigations they should do now into themselves, there are lots of different models; as Ken said, there’s the internal investigation, outside panels.

In the case of say Jayson Blair with the New York Times, the Times did its own investigation. In the case of USA Today and Jack Kelley, which was a very similar kind of plagiarism case, they had a distinguished panel outside — I’m not so sure it necessarily matters as long as how it is done is known to the audience and as they say sunshine is the best disinfectant, as long as the readers and the viewers know how it was done.

TERENCE SMITH: Ken Auletta, let me read you a quote from Dan Rather. He said yesterday, he was quoted as saying that a “thick partisan fogging machine seeks to cloud the core truth of our story by raising questions about the messenger, the methods and the techniques.” Is there anything to it?

KEN AULETTA: Of course. I mean, there’s no question that… I mean, if you watch, say, Fox News, they have treated this story as if it were Watergate. It’s not Watergate. I mean, among other things, in Watergate people deliberately lied.

I don’t know very many serious people who believe honestly that Dan Rather or the people at CBS are deliberately lying here. They may have made a mistake and they should come clean on it and come clean as soon as they should.

And I agree with what Susan said about if the source knowingly lied and you can prove it, then you have a contract with your viewers to tell that and name that source. But, you know, I think there is a machine that fogs things up.

And the truth of the matter is that Bush has not been asked about legitimate questions about his National Guard service. CBS has been asked many more questions. To someone at CBS, they feel like the messenger is getting shot for the message.

TERENCE SMITH: Susan Tifft, what are the wider implication of this, first for CBS News and then maybe for the credibility of media organizations generally?

SUSAN TIFFT: Well, as your earlier segment said, you know, CBS and Dan Rather in particular are really sort of the poster children for all the charges of bias, left-wing bias in the media, so I think CBS in particular is very much, you know, not on the ropes exactly, but certainly the focus of a great deal of attention. And people inside CBS are very concerned about this.

So I think what their legacy is going to be from this and how we’re going to remember this incident in journalism I think is going to depend a great deal on how they handle it.

As far as the wider implication for journalism, you know, it hasn’t been a really good couple years here.We have had Jayson Blair at the New York Times. We have had Jack Kelley at USA Today.

And I think, you know, the latest Gallup Poll I saw shows that journalists ranked somewhere like three notches above HMO’s in Americans’ confidence scale. So this doesn’t help; this doesn’t help.

TERENCE SMITH: We’ll have to leave it there, Susan Tifft, Ken Auletta. Thank you both very much.