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"Rathergate"

Ken Auletta

Writer, The New Yorker

Ken Auletta

Was there something in how the Bush re-election campaign played the "Rathergate" story so that it ended up focusing on the one wrong document out of all of it, or was it just a lucky break for them?

It was a lucky break for them that CBS made a big mistake, but they did more than that. The Bush administration is very good about going on the offensive. If you look at the campaign, starting with the way they were running against a war hero, ... they were able to change the narrative that [Democratic presidential candidate] John Kerry wanted to present because they were aggressive about it.

And they were aggressive about CBS. They attacked Dan Rather for his well-known "bias" against the Bush administration -- not just this Bush administration, but his father's administration, and they used every technique to impugn Dan Rather and CBS. Unfortunately, CBS gave them some ammunition to do that. .....

 
Tom Bettag

Former executive producer, Nightline, CBS Evening News

Tom Bettag

One, I think CBS did Dan a big favor; that they handled this so badly and in such a mean-spirited way that I think in fact Dan comes out looking good and CBS looks like this kind of mean organization. ... Bloggers think that they nailed Dan. I don't think that that's going to happen very often. I think bloggers are a huge worry for corporations, for anybody, because a lot of those blogs, I think, are dead wrong. The great danger of the Internet is that there's just an enormous amount of misinformation. Corporations really worry that they can get bloggers putting something out, and trying to stomp it out is very difficult once it gets going. But I don't think the bloggers have as much impact as they think they do.

Did CBS get the reporting wrong?

Well, I think in the end most of that story was right. You have the secretary saying, yes, he did write memos like that, and that's what he said, but those weren't the memos.

What I love about being a journalist is you've got to get 100 percent right. Politicians don't have to do that at all. I mean, Ronald Reagan would [say] these things -- that there's more oil in Alaska than Saudi Arabia -- and then if you called him on it, say, "Golly, did I get that wrong?" [He's not] expected to necessarily get it completely right, and that's politics. Journalism is you have to get it 100 percent, and I like being held to that standard, and I think Dan Rather doesn't mind being held to that standard.

I think Dan's greatest crime in all of this was that he was intensely loyal to his people. In this particular moment he just stepped up and said, "I take full responsibility for it; I did it." In other scandals, correspondents have said, "Look, I just read the words." Dan is never going to do that, and in this particular case, he was immensely loyal to his producer, jumped in, and that was his greatest sin in it.

But no, it was not 100 percent right, and if it's not 100 percent right, it's not good journalism. ...

 
Walter Cronkite

Former anchor, CBS Evening News

Walter Cronkite

When you see major problems, for instance, at CBS News -- like the National Guard story that created this controversy -- what do you think the impact of that is on the public trust [of] the media?

I think that one does some damage to our public trust. ... In that case, they made a serious mistake and exposed themselves to a great deal of criticism -- most unfortunate for them and for the network. It was badly handled.

Nothing like that happened on your watch, did it?

Well, no. I think I would remember it if it had. I was there a long time.

 
Jeff Fager

Executive producer, 60 Minutes

Jeff Fager

The so-called Rathergate story, with its flaws -- the apparently forged documents, although no one seems to have proven that they're forged -- kind of reminded me of the rollover-truck story at Dateline, the General Motors truck using igniters in the gas tank. The process by which the story was told was severely flawed, but the facts of the story were actually true.

Well, yeah, The New York Times and The Boston Globe and I think one other newspaper reported the story within the week. But you don't go about this line of work, when you're selling your credibility, and use documents that are Xeroxed. It's not our job to say, "Prove that they're not accurate; prove that they're not the real deal." The flaw in the reporting and the flaw in the storytelling, as is the case with the Dateline story, you can't justify it under any circumstances, because it just hurts our credibility so severely, at CBS News anyway. I think we all suffered from it, even though it wasn't 60 Minutes. Everybody at CBS News took a hit, because it had the appearance of going after him [President Bush]. ...

 
Scott Johnson

Blogger, Power Line

Scott Johnson

Of course your most famous bump-up in recognition came during the 2004 election. Can you just lay out the story for us? What happened the day after the CBS report aired? How did you hear about this? Did you see the actual report?

I had been following the news coverage of the Democratic and Republican campaigns that week following the Republican Convention, which we had covered through John's attendance at the Republican Convention. I thought he'd done a tremendous job and had some things on offer on the site that weren't available elsewhere. ... Wednesday morning, Sept. 8, The Boston Globe reported a story of new documents with respect to President Bush's Air National Guard service that had just been released by the Pentagon, pursuant to a Freedom of Information Act request. ...

I read The Boston Globe story very carefully and saw that although it was reported in terms that suggested that there was something scandalous perhaps about the withholding of these documents or their recent release, they were absolutely consistent with everything else that had been released about President Bush's Air National Guard service to the effect that he had served honorably and well in his capacity as a pilot for the Texas Air National Guard. So I wrote about that on the morning of Sept. 8.

On the morning of Sept. 9, I took a look again at The Boston Globe and saw they had a story about some more new documents that had supposedly been discovered by CBS and covered in the course of a 60 Minutes II story that had been broadcast the night before. The Globe story noted that the CBS story was available online and the documents had been posted, so I went to the CBS story and read that, ... and I opened up each of those documents and read them.

Unlike the documents which had been previously released about President Bush's Air National Guard service, including the ones that had just been reported the day before in the Globe, these documents seemed to suggest that there was something dishonorable about President Bush's National Guard service and suggested that he disobeyed a direct order from a commanding officer to show up for a physical. That was the one that really I paused over and read and reread several times that morning. What I did was, as I had done the morning before, I ... started writing this on our site. I noted the availability of the CBS story on the CBS site. I noted that the documents were available for inspection in the CBS version of the story that was online.

Before I posted that on our site, I took a look at our e-mail, and there was an e-mail from a reader that quoted comment number 47 to a "Free Republic" thread on the CBS 60 Minutes version of the story. The quote was to the effect that these documents aren't typewritten; they're word-processed; this is an obvious fraud; someone should really look into this. I had no idea whether that was true or not, but it seemed interesting, and the circumstantial evidence regarding the discovery of these documents seemed suspicious to me in the sense that they supposedly came from the personal file of President Bush's commanding officer, and yet they didn't seem to have been released by his family, the commanding officer's family, Col. [Jerry] Killian's family. On the contrary, they were released by a confidential source. The commanding officer had died 10 years before, but somehow these documents mysteriously disappeared. …

I called that post "The 61st Minute," thinking that there might be more to the 60 Minutes story than had been broadcast the night before, hit the "Post" button on our site at 7:50 a.m. the morning of Sept. 9, and went to work. …

By the time I got to work, there were about 50 e-mails [about the post]. They offered information of all kinds that was based on kind of arcane expert knowledge, either with respect to military protocol or IBM typefaces or the like, and almost all of which suggested that those documents were, in fact, fraudulent. …

As the day went on, there was substantial information developed by other bloggers, ... interviewing forensic document examiners and the like, almost all of which seemed to suggest that those documents were a complete and utter fraud, although CBS began the stonewall that it continued for the following 12 days. ...

This [revelation about the documents] wasn't fact-checked or reported in the conventional sense. There were several people, and Power Line was sort of the hub.

Right. One of the really interesting things about the exposure of that CBS story, the fraudulence of that story, was the collaborative nature of the venture. It wasn't only a collaboration among us and other blogs; it was a collaboration among the blogs and readers of the blogs, ... and it really illustrated something about the power of the medium that it could draw on the expertise of so many people over such a short period of time, directing their attention and their knowledge on a discrete question, which seemed capable of being answered within several hours.

The first question I had that day was, are we far out on the end of a limb that's going to be sawed [off]? Are we going to lose whatever credibility we'd built up in the previous several years working on the site? The question I had later that morning is, how many times has CBS done this before and gotten away with it? ...

And then Dan Rather ends up leaving CBS, retiring probably earlier than he wanted to, many would say resigning in disgrace. How did you feel about that?

I don't think we ever mentioned the name Dan Rather during the day that we were writing about this, and I hadn't watched the CBS Evening News for 20 years at the time that this was all occurring. I was aware that Dan Rather was somebody whom I thought was a liberal, who had made his name as a proud adversary of President Nixon during the Watergate scandal, but I really wasn't interested in him as a person or a figure one way or the other. I have no animus to him.

I really dislike the fact that he hasn't owned up to the wrong he participated in with that story. Since he left CBS News, he seems to be suggesting that those documents may be authentic after all, and he's part of the crowd that keeps saying even if they were fake, they were fake but accurate. So I don't respect him for the things he has said since that story, since he left CBS News, but I bear no animus to him at all. I really don't think much about him one way or the other. ...

What would have happened, do you think, with this story if there had been no Power Line, no Internet, no alternative way for information and skeptical inquiry to happen?

I thought that the most significant event in the election of 2004 was the emergence of the Swift Boat Vets, and that the Internet allowed them to be heard in a way that they would not have been heard in previous years; and that in fact, when they emerged, the mainstream media tried to ignore them. But as word got out on the Internet and elsewhere about their message and after their book was published in August, some serious notice was taken of them. ...

I think that the "Rathergate" story was small, a small wind to the president's back, and that it turned the attention off a purported Bush scandal and turned it on CBS News for two weeks at a critical time in the campaign when the Democratic National Committee and John Kerry intended to be attacking President Bush's Air National Guard record in a way that simply became impossible as that story crumbled.

So the Internet seemed to have a pretty profound effect on the 2004 election.

That's my take. ...

For a lot of people out there, it seemed like [Rathergate] was [evidence], finally, of a solid case of liberal bias. How did you take it? ...

Well, of course I tended to be suspicious, because I thought that the reporters and producers and Dan Rather himself were liberal and desired John Kerry to win and President Bush to lose. So I would say I looked at the story with a gimlet eye to begin with. I thought that they were pretty fair stand-ins for the rest of their colleagues in the mainstream media in that respect. ... I think [CBS's 250-page report on the incident is] a tremendous illustration of the forces at work in these huge media organizations like CBS, NBC, ABC, The New York Times and The Washington Post that has been aired in a way that we never see otherwise as a result of the exposure of the story.

Do you think before the degree of scrutiny the Internet affords, they were getting away with that sort of stuff?

... I strongly suspect that in days of yore, before the development of the Internet as a means for the dissemination and circulation of information, that mainstream media organizations have gotten away with fabricated, bogus, false stories many times and not been called to account. ...

Something else that's kind of interesting is that CBS was vulnerable because of the Internet. What would have happened if they had not posted that document on their Web site?

That's really a great question. What would have happened to CBS had they themselves not made the evidence on which their story was based available to others who use the Internet, like us? I think nothing would have happened. The story would have stood. I don't think the folks who run the Internet function at CBS participated in the fraud. I think that CBS, at that level, was operating in good faith. They themselves made the evidence available with which they were hung, so to speak, and I certainly credit them for having done that. ...

 
Ted Koppel

Former anchor, Nightline

Ted Koppel

We're going to be speaking with Dan Rather in a couple of weeks. He was at CBS for a very long time, did a lot of journalism, and left under a cloud. ... You have any thoughts about that?

I do, and I've expressed them publicly. I think CBS treated [Dan Rather] shabbily. In journalism, as in politics, you've got to get it all right. If you're 99 percent right and you make one mistake, all anyone is going to remember is the mistake. Dan's team made a mistake. Was the whole story wrong? No, I don't think so. I think they had the story pretty much nailed. But they got one particular part of that story wrong, and that was enough to hang all of them out to dry. We can all get nailed that way.

The game is perfectly fair. We do the same thing to our statesmen, our leaders, our politicians. They can get 99 percent right; they get one thing wrong, boy, are we focused on that. I think what happened to Dan is tragic, because, as you say, he had a long and distinguished career, and he deserved to leave CBS with his head held high and with them shouting hosannas. But that's not the way it went. And in the final analysis, ... we've all made lots of money; we've become more famous than we deserved; we've had wonderful careers. Dan doesn't regret a moment of his, as I don't regret a moment of mine. But I would have wished better for Dan in how he left CBS.

 
Josh Marshall

Blogger, Talking Points Memo

Josh Marshall

Basically, yes. ... In the Dan Rather story, we were by no means the first ones to catch the fact all this stuff with the typesetting and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. But ... there was a chorus among liberal blogs defending the story, and if you look at what I wrote at the time, [I] was basically saying that I didn't think that this was something that should be defended necessarily and that I thought that these conservative blogs who were making this argument had a point. ... That, I think, is an example of the fundamental honesty with your readers. ...

 
Mark McKinnon

Former media adviser to President Bush

Mark McKinnon

When 60 Minutes II was doing its story about Bush's National Guard service, what was the reaction in the Bush campaign? You knew it was coming.

Right. It was another National Guard story. ...

How did you use it? I mean, you must have thought about the advantage it was going to give you.

I think it did its work on its own. ...

Before it was discredited, did you see Dan Rather as being biased?

I would say that he had a pretty consistent [record] of producing stories unflattering to the administration. ...

You didn't expect Dan Rather to do a positive story about the administration.

I certainly didn't.

But you would expect, for example, that [Fox News'] Brit Hume might do a more positive story about the administration.

Every administration looks out at a sea of reporters, and ... [they will be] evaluated for what kind of reporting they do, whether or not it's objective and fair. Every administration will take that into account for who they do interviews with. ...

 
Markos Moulitsas

Blogger, Daily Kos

Markos Moulitsas

Conservative bloggers see Dan Rather as a pelt on their belts.

Yeah, they're still living the glory day of three years ago. Conservative blogs are pretty irrelevant. At the end of the day they're pretty irrelevant. The reason is because they're merely an extension of the right-wing noise machine. ...

There's not a lot of activism generated online. They don't raise a lot of money for candidates; they don't generate a lot of activism for candidates. They have their moments here and there, but at the end of the day, most of the top [conservative] bloggers are actually personalities in other media: radio hosts or television personalities or authors. Not a lot of what you see on the left, which is a lot of just citizen activists that suddenly find their voice and find an audience and suddenly can effect change by their online efforts. You don't see that a lot on the right. ...

The Dan Rather stuff is a perfect example where they actually created that noise machine, that echo chamber sort of thing. You almost never have that on the left because we just don't agree with each other. We're not going to sit there and fall in line and just do whatever everybody else tells us to do. They can. And they can have their moments. But really, Dan Rather's their big, glorious, crowning achievement, and that was, what, three years ago, two years ago? They haven't had anything since, and I don't think they will. I mean, they're quite irrelevant.

 
Dan Rather

Former anchor, CBS Evening News

Dan Rather

Your departure from CBS, and CBS obviously not being happy with the story in the end -- how were you treated?

I think I'll let other people answer that. I'm looking forward, moving on. It's a fair question, but I'm not going to answer that. ...

Were you a casualty in some ways? Because you really weren't involved in the details of the reporting of that story. ... You had faith in the people you worked with, but you really didn't know the facts of the story.

Well, some of that is true. But I think the most important thing, ... and this has been my creed for a long, long time, and it was forged in the fires of my early work with 60 Minutes and even before that when I was doing fieldwork, things such as the Watergate story, civil rights, and Vietnam: We're a team: ... the on-air correspondent, the producers, the reporters and the research people that he or she works with. ... And whatever happens, we go into the story together, we stick together when we're covering it, and we come out the other end together. It's so much a collaborative process; it is literally a team of people. I never want to be a person who says, "Oh, well, don't blame me; blame that person behind the tree."

We went into this as a team, and I tried very hard to hold us together as a team and find out the answers to a lot of questions about, had we done everything we could do and should do? That being my own belief, that I thought that we were all in this, CBS News was all in this together and that, yes, CBS was in it together, we came under tremendous pressure, we came under tremendous fire, and the heat weakens. I wasn't able to do what I'd hoped to do, which was continue to investigate the story, continue to work on the story.

We knew the content of the documents were correct. ... The information in there is correct and has been corroborated eight ways from Sunday. There's no doubt what is in those documents is true, absolutely accurate. And because it was absolutely accurate, the attacks centered on the form that it took. And nobody to this day has proven that the documents we presented were not what they purported to be. Our problem became, and remains, that we were not able to prove absolutely, without any shadow of any doubt, that they were what they purported to be. ...

[M]ost people have moved on. It's been a long time. And people who care about this, still care about it, have made up their minds. ... Unless additional information comes up, which it very well may, then history will judge how well or how badly we did the story.

But in terms of CBS, ... there were plans before the Bush story ever appeared for me to leave the Evening News at or about the time that I did. I'd been there 24 years, and I would have liked to have made 25, but I knew the preceding summer that that wasn't going to happen. They said they wanted to take CBS News in different directions, and consequent events have proven that they did want to take it in different directions. But promises were made and not kept. Contracts that had been written were not adhered to, and I didn't feel terrific about that. But then I've been so lucky and blessed that when you hit a bad place in the road, when bad things happen, or you say, "Ah, I really wish they'd done a little better on this or that," I have to remember how really lucky I've been. At base, I'm a reporter who got lucky, very, very lucky.

But you didn't resign, and you didn't get fired. The producer [and] the executive producer did. As happens often in this business, others -- not the on-camera person -- take the rap.

Well, if you think that I didn't "take the rap," as you put it, then I'd suggest you haven't been reading the papers. I stood by every person who was involved with that, stood right by them and still stand by them. Didn't give up on anybody. And the company made its decisions. What would it help for me to do that?

... Here I have to be transparent. I was at CBS News. I tried to do a story that I couldn't get on the air, initially anyway, and the people around me saluted the company. [They] said: "Get on with your business. Do something else." And even when the story came out that we hadn't done the story, there was a lot of mixed reaction inside the company about the whole situation. And it forces me to ask you, what goes on? ... It was my experience in [a similar] situation that it was a lot of running for cover.

... Certainly when the pressure gets on, when the heat gets on, when you're taking flak, one of the inevitable things that happens is that the envy, jealousy, dissatisfaction of seeing somebody else "get it," if you will, ... that gets set loose. ...

When the heat gets on, there are certain people who want to take advantage of it, your disappointment, even inside. And, you know, I have actually worked for a living when I was younger; I worked in the oil fields and on the pipeline gang. It's present there; it's present in every newsroom. So that's a factor in things. ...

[And] then there are those who said, "What you need to do is cut yourself loose from all of these other people, these people you work with." And I chose not to do that. I chose to stick with each one of them. And when I was asked before the commission that the company hired to investigate this, and I answered the question, I told them that if I had a story of this magnitude to do this afternoon, I'd be very happy to go and do it with the same people that I did this story with. ...

 
Jay Rosen

Blogger; Professor, New York University

Jay Rosen

Is that why 60 Minutes II wound up with "Rathergate"?

Oh, definitely. Another big reason why 60 Minutes II wound up with Rathergate was that [CBS News] didn't have the Web literacy that they should have had. ... They didn't know what was happening to their story on the Web. They went into a defensive crouch and said, "We stand by our story." But nobody in power, nobody with any decision-making influence actually was monitoring what was happening to that story online, and they didn't know how weak their story was. They persisted for at least seven or eight days in something that many other people knew was going to fall. ... It was a case of a news organization that was not actually current with knowledge of its own story. It was extraordinary. ...

Conservative bloggers that we've talked to say, "How many times has this sort of shoddy journalism happened in the past and nobody ever found out about it?" Is that fair?

I guess it would be a fair question, yeah. Their assumption that it goes on all the time is not fair. I actually think this was an extraordinary situation, extraordinary lapse that is not necessarily typical, but nonetheless extremely disturbing. I don't agree with CBS, and I don't agree with the right-wing bloggers, either, about what happened in this story. ...

 
Tom Rosenstiel

Director, Project for Excellence in Journalism

Tom Rosenstiel

I want to talk about the "Rathergate" story. What did CBS do wrong?

Well, in what's become known as the Rathergate or "Memogate" story at CBS, CBS's 60 Minutes II did a report about the president's war record during Vietnam and the National Guard and cited documents that it claimed were proof that his National Guard supervisor at the time thought that he had gotten special preferential treatment.

What CBS failed to do was to authenticate whether those documents were legitimate and accurate. It claimed that it had authenticated the documents, but in reality, all it had done is gotten experts to document that the signature was that of the person whose name was on the documents. But it's quite possible the documents themselves were manufactured. …

Within 24 hours, there were people in the blogosphere raising questions and supposing that the documents were falsified. In the end, it was never resolved whether the documents were false or not, but it was clear that CBS had not done a sufficient job of authenticating.

I think we'll look back on Memogate as a moment when the news media discovered that it can no longer get away with claiming to know things that it really hasn't verified, claiming to have authenticated things that it really hasn't authenticated, or claiming to have brought in experts who are really not experts in all the things that the media may claim. In a sense, in the age of the blogosphere, the news media is in an open courtroom and in a sense kind of under oath, because it's going to be cross-examined in real time by any blogger or any critic who wants to raise questions.

What about the charge of liberal bias laid bare right there?

What we know about Memogate was that it was a failure to authenticate documents. Why did CBS and Dan Rather fail to authenticate documents? Was it because Rather's got a liberal bias? Was it the producer who has a liberal bias? Was it a failure of systems, because the ranks of CBS News had been so thinned out over the years that there weren't sufficient checks and balances? Was it some combination of all of those things?

My gut is that it was a combination, that you did have some people who had an anti-Bush bias, and then you had other people for whom that wasn't a factor, but there just weren't enough bodies in the system anymore. And too much responsibility was handed over to somebody who did have a bias.

What do you think it does in the end for the public's perception?

Memogate is going to mean for people who see bias in the press as proof that it exists. It's going to mean for people who deride consolidation [and] conglomeration in the press as a sign of the corporate decline of CBS News. For other people, it means that what CBS claims that it represented, which was too much speed, too much eagerness to get something on the air. …

I know for Don Hewitt, who developed 60 Minutes originally at CBS, Memogate represented a loss of perspective, because the story that did Dan Rather in in the end wasn't a story that was all that new. It wasn't really a dramatically different story about George Bush's war record than we knew in the past. It wasn't worth, in other words, going out on a limb. A week later, The New York Times had most of the same story without the falsified documents or questionable documents, and it didn't make a ripple.

 
Bill Sammon

Reporter, The Washington Examiner

Bill Sammon

When the 60 Minutes II story [that came to be known as "Rathergate"] aired during the 2004 presidential campaign, ... how [was it] maybe used by the Bush administration? Was there a conscious decision to try to use the story to a strategic advantage once it was clear how wrong things had become?

Well, let me back up, and before I get to that question, for fairness' sake, I want to say that CBS, through its own words, felt that that story on Bush's National Guard service would have a political impact on the election. There's a famous e-mail that was sent from one of [then-CBS News producer] Mary Mapes' underlings to her that said that this story has the potential to change the outcome of an election. It's pretty clear, when you get down into the details and the evidence that was compiled about this whole sordid case, that CBS had gone beyond just wanting to report the facts. ...

Now, when the thing blew up in CBS's face, President Bush definitely saw a political opportunity, no question about it, because first of all, it discredited CBS, one of the biggest detractors of the Bush administration. Secondly, and more importantly, it took the question of Bush's military service off the table for the duration of the election. It was not going to be looked into by any news organization from then until Election Day. ...

What did it mean for journalism? ...

The "Memogate" story was validation to a lot of conservatives, who for years have been claiming that there is a liberal bias, because there it was. There, right there in black and white, you had clearly documents that had been created on a modern word-processing program and modern computer being passed off as early 1970s typewritten documents. And they're from a guy who's been dead for years, who can't explain whether they're authentic or not. It was just totally bogus. Everybody in America, except Dan Rather and Mary Mapes, eventually came to see this as a bogus story.

So it went a long way toward validating conservative claims of liberal bias, ... but it was [also] another nail in the coffin of the media's credibility. And it was a big one, because it ended up in an anchorman being forced from his anchor chair a year before he was supposed to retire. It ended up in executives at CBS, high-ranking executives, being fired or asked to leave, and producers being fired or asked to leave. ...

This was a story that had deep ramifications, not only in terms of destroying the careers of a lot of people inside CBS, but more broadly, it really was a major, major black eye for the mainstream media. ...

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posted feb. 13, 2007; last updated feb. 27, 2007

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