September 19, 2004

"I'VE NEVER BEEN MORE CONFIDENT IN MY LIFE"

Massive Washington Post piece on Rathergate. It includes a major concession from CBS producer Josh Howard, who says the network stopped fact-checking the documents when they werenít immediately challenged by the White House:

"Obviously, looking back on it, that was a mistake. We stopped questioning ourselves. I suppose you could say we let our guard down."

Yes, you could say that. (White House communications director Dan Bartlettís explanation for his no-challenge: "How am I supposed to verify something that came from a dead man in three hours?") It turns out Rather has actually met the source:

In mid-August, [CBS producer Mary] Mapes told her bosses that she had finally tracked down a source who claimed to have access to memos written in 1972 and 1973 by the late Lt. Col. Jerry B. Killian, Bush's squadron commander in the Texas Air National Guard. The memos, she was told, revealed how the young pilot from a famous family had received favorable treatment, even after refusing an order to report for a physical. Rather and his producer met the source at an out-of-the-way location.

An out-of-the-way location near Abilene, perhaps? Maybe we should feel sorry for 60 Minutes, running on a tiny budget and all:

"The show is not so lavishly budgeted that we have tons of people doing this," said Harry Moses, a "60 Minutes" producer not connected to the story. "You do the pre-interviews yourself and then bring in the correspondent."

At which point the budget suddenly increases:

The next stop was Texas. Rather was in Florida, so CBS chartered a plane to get him to Austin.

Priorities, people. CBS News President Andrew Heyward says "all of us asked questions" during a pre-broadcast meeting:

"We asked core questions -- about reliability, authenticity, motivation, could the source have had access to the documents."

Too bad nobody thought to type up the memos in Microsoft Word. Too bad Dan Rather -- who must have reams of Ď70s-era memos lying around in his files -- didnít recognise elemental differences (superscript, no hyphens, etc) between modern and 30-year-old documents.

After the show, one colleague asked an elated Rather whether he was sure the documents were real. "I have never been more confident of a story in my life," he said.

That line is going to get some play in the next week or so. Marshall, earlier admitting "we let our guard down", later retreats into Ratheresque denial:

Rather said that if the memos were indeed faked, "I'd like to break that story." But whatever the verdict on the memos, he said, critics "can't deny the story."

As the days begin to blur for Josh Howard, he embraces the same logic: "So much of this debate has focused on the documents, and no one has really challenged the story. It's been frustrating to us to see all this reduced to a debate over little 'th's."

A debate CBS has lost, by the way. And the reason critics "can't deny the story"? There isn't a story to deny.

UPDATE. Impressive document-hunting work from Allah and Daily Recycler. What did CBS know, and when did they not want us to know it?

UPDATE II. Mark Steyn:

You'd think CBS would be mad as hell to find whoever it was who stitched them up and made them look idiots.

They could start with Rather.

UPDATE III. Itís all Bushís fault:

"If we had gotten back from the White House any kind of red flag, raised eyebrow, anything that said, 'Are you sure about this stuff?' we would have gone back to square one," Josh Howard, the program's executive producer, said Friday.

But the White House lies! John Kerry says so!

UPDATE IV. Blaming the White House doesnít cut any ice with the Independentís Rupert Cornwell:

If CBS, however, has been duped, the network appears the author of its own misfortune, having ignored warnings even from its own forensic specialists that the memos might be dodgy.

UPDATE V. Dan Rather, a few weeks before the memo broadcast:

In the end, what difference does it make what one candidate or the other did or didn't do during the Vietnam War? In some ways, that war is as distant as the Napoleonic campaigns.

UPDATE VI. Bill 'Kinko' Burkett, probable source of the memos, can count on Dan:

Burkett told a visitor that after the story ran, Rather phoned him and expressed his and the network's "full support."

And it turns out Michael Moore did end up influencing this election, albeit indirectly:

A biographical sketch appended to another anti- Bush essay Burkett posted on an Internet site in late August describes him as "one of the sources" for Michael Moore's anti-Bush film "Fahrenheit 9/11."

UPDATE VII. Stop calling him Burkett!

Posted by Tim Blair at September 19, 2004 04:54 PM
Comments

I don't want to seem callous or unfair, but I think, maybe, possibly, this Burkett guy might be a few tumbleweeds short of a ranch.

Posted by: Jim Treacher at September 19, 2004 at 05:04 PM

Friends, the WaPo story reads better than a great novel. It's just a fabulous. Piece follow the link and enjoy a lil' bit o' Christmas in September.

Posted by: Crid at September 19, 2004 at 05:07 PM

I just typed out a word document accusing Rather of being a child molester. To give it gravitas, I photoshopped Nelson Mandella's signature onto it and photocopied it a few times. Now when the hell is he going to respond to these accusations? Oh, I suppose he want's to make the credibility of my badly-spelt document the issue here? You calling the father of the South African freedom movement a liar? DON'T TRY TO CHANGE THE SUBJECT, RATHER, THIS IS ABOUT YOU AND YOUR BABY-RAPING!

Posted by: Amos at September 19, 2004 at 05:09 PM

Sorry for the typos. I'm enervated, in the Ben Afflsck sense.

Posted by: Crid at September 19, 2004 at 05:10 PM

Oh and it just occured to me, because he's dissing Nelson, he's also a racist!!

Posted by: Amos at September 19, 2004 at 05:11 PM

BTW, I lost interest years ago: Is Hewitt still in charge over there, or did he touch Connie in the elevator one time too many?

Posted by: Crid at September 19, 2004 at 05:15 PM

Rather was in Florida, so CBS chartered a plane to get him to Austin.

Chartered a plane? Where the hell did they think Austin was, in the Yukon? It's the captial of Texas for gods sake, They get mail there daily and the runway is paved, and as of my visit last year, they had indoor plumbing.

CBS/Viacom doesnt have its own jets? There's probably 12 commercial flights a day that will get you from Florida To Austin.

Does Dan have some kind of powerful body odor that would offend his precious public? Is this why they want to quarrantine him on "chartered" planes?

If I owned Viacom stock, I'd want to know what the hell this is all about.

Posted by: Frank Martin at September 19, 2004 at 05:19 PM

White House communications director Dan Bartlettís explanation for his no-challenge: "How am I supposed to verify something that came from a dead man in three hours?"

The rest of his quote: "... Who do they think I am? A blogger?"

Posted by: aj at September 19, 2004 at 05:46 PM

Dan was on a flight from NY to TX this weekend. I really, really hope he's not going home to blow his brains out, cuz that would constitute the pentultimate anti-climax, drama-wise, that is...

"After the show, one colleague asked an elated Rather whether he was sure the documents were real. 'I have never been more confident of a story in my life,' he said.

Tim, it may be time to start thinking of a thread asking for the single most goofy, yet identifying phrase for the 2004 campaign season.

As if you weren't already planning same...

Posted by: geezer at September 19, 2004 at 06:14 PM

One last thought: if Rather and his producer Mapes have been working on this story so diligently since '99, one wonders how different US history would've been had they been as equally fixated on Boy Clinton and his serial-sexual- predatory proclivities?

Shit--I forgot... that would've been news reporting. My bad.

Posted by: geezer at September 19, 2004 at 06:32 PM

"If we had gotten back from the White House any kind of red flag, raised eyebrow, anything that said, 'Are you sure about this stuff?' we would have gone back to square one," Josh Howard, the program's executive producer, said Friday.

So CBS is relying on the White House to do Dan Rathers fact-checking?

Posted by: RonG at September 19, 2004 at 07:05 PM

Brings to mind Micah Wright's defense: "The Washington Post should have fact-checked my lies in the first place!" Nothing about this can surprise me at this point.

This Newsweek story is good too. Last paragraph in particular.

Posted by: Jim Treacher at September 19, 2004 at 07:10 PM

Oops, I see Tim already linked to that. Well, check out the Michael Moore connection there.

"In some ways, that war is as distant as the Napoleonic campaigns."

And in some other ways, it's as near as your first severance check.

Posted by: Jim Treacher at September 19, 2004 at 07:18 PM

Compare these two statements:

"The show is not so lavishly budgeted ..."

And

"...so CBS chartered a plane ..."

Gosh only knows what CBS would charter if they had a moderately lavish budget for "60 Minutes" -- the friggin' Space Shuttle maybe.

Posted by: David Crawford at September 19, 2004 at 08:13 PM

'It's been frustrating to us to see all this reduced to a debate over little 'th's."'

Man, that is exactly the kind of whining I got from university students when I caught them plagiarizing. How could I possibly claim that they'd copied somebody else, just because of a few (misspelled, misplaced or misused) words? The phrase 'tip of the iceberg' meant nothing to them. Didn't matter; they still flunked.

Posted by: Meg at September 19, 2004 at 08:33 PM

Josh Hayward seems to be proposing a whole new simplified system of fact-checking - just put the stuff in the public arena and if no-one challenges it, consider it proven.

This is the 'multiple levels of checks and balances in a media organisation'?

And this amateurism somehow puts these organisations above blogs?

If I was a CBS stockholder I would be demanding some accountability from these charlatans!

Posted by: Om at September 19, 2004 at 10:10 PM

i have to say one of my favorite parts of this is how cbs is trying to cover its ass by saying that the white house released the memos and didn't comment as to their veracity. now, i realize that i'm a simple jersey boy, but even in these days of bushhitlercheneyhalliburtonashcroft how is the whitehouse supposed to know about or be in any position to comment upon memos that supposedly come from someone's private papaers and are given to them originally by cbs?

Posted by: Mr. Bingley at September 19, 2004 at 10:54 PM

I would like to pass on my thanks to CBS, Dan Rather, and the blogosphere in general for providing me with the most entertaining week I have ever spent surfing the net watching this train crash in slow motion.

Particular mention to the Daily Kos, DU, and a raft of mainstream "quality" newspapers for their frantic and unintentionally hilarious attempts to defend and/or justify the forged memos.

Do I spell "Schadenfreude" correctly?

Posted by: Pedro the Ignorant at September 20, 2004 at 12:30 AM

"If we had gotten back from the White House any kind of red flag, raised eyebrow, anything that said, 'Are you sure about this stuff?' we would have gone back to square one," Josh Howard, the program's executive producer, said Friday.

My God. After the past four years, how the H*L could Josh Howard possibly expect the White House to piss on him if his hair was on fire? That complaint has got to be the most ridiculous one of the entire clown act; too bad you have to know too much context to make it a soundbyte.

IIRC Bartlett's response was more or less to the effect that the memos were an unhelpful rehash of old news. I'd be willing to bet that their actual reaction was similar to mine, which was (a) this is a ridiculous fake done on a modern word processor and (b) they'll get away with it because the world will give them a pass. That being the case, no substantive reaction could possibly have been useful to the White House: if they deny the authenticity they get piled on for that, if they admit authenticity the charges get reinforced.

Fortunately (b) didn't happen; all hail the blogosphere. But if Howard truly expected the Bush Administration to help him in any way, however minor, he needs to start his education over. In nursery school; the five-year-olds in kindergarten are 'way ahead of him.

Regards,
Ric Locke

Posted by: Ric Locke at September 20, 2004 at 12:48 AM

"OK, Mr. Barlett, here's what's happening. This dude in Abilene faxed us over this old memo that says your boss, like, totally flaked on his Guard service. Is that bogus or not? Cuz if you say it's bogus, then, like, we'll check it out some more or something, cuz everyone says it's totally sketchy, but Dan's all like, "This rocks!" But if you don't say it's bogus, then it must be legit, right? Hey, are you gonna eat that danish?"

Posted by: Dave S. at September 20, 2004 at 01:16 AM

"Josh Hayward seems to be proposing a whole new simplified system of fact-checking - just put the stuff in the public arena and if no-one challenges it, consider it proven."

If you yell "Police!" and flash a juice-can lid at somebody, and they fall for it, after that you get to do whatever you want.

"This is the 'multiple levels of checks and balances in a media organisation'?"

Well, checks at least. Severance checks!

Posted by: Jim Treacher at September 20, 2004 at 01:20 AM

No one questions that facts? What kind of idiots does CBS news hire. Everyone (except the dead people) who had knowledge of the events presented by CBS has challanged their story. Knox and Strong both support CBS but both acknowledged the had no first hand knowledge...

Posted by: Daniel at September 20, 2004 at 02:10 AM

After the show, one colleague asked an elated Rather...

why would a professional, dispassionate newsman be "elated" after a show?

Posted by: dan truly at September 20, 2004 at 02:36 AM

"why would a professional, dispassionate newsman be "elated" after a show?"

A professional wouldn't, Document Dan is another story.

Posted by: Retread at September 20, 2004 at 03:47 AM

I'm with Pedro. I've had more laughs out of this fiasco than I can remember about any single event in the past three years. Until, that is, I start to remember that Baggy Dan represents the industry I was supposed to be getting factual information from. Old Media bosses had better boot Dan Blather and start doing some sincerely public soul-searching and breast-beating, because nobody is going to trust them ever again. I certainly don't, unless I can fact-check it in the blogosphere!

Posted by: Rebecca at September 20, 2004 at 04:05 AM

CBS is in serious denial. Most of these excuses are little more than blame projection. Those drooling idiots know they screwed the pooch, but don't have the integrity to admit it, fix the problem, and then move on.

Until that happens, CBS remains the lowest of the low (i.e., the MSM).

Posted by: The Real JeffS at September 20, 2004 at 05:00 AM

This here piece from the ChiTrib is the sound of an old man trying to wheeze gracefully after a big meal... It's as gracious as the MSM is ever going to be about the collapse of their authority with concerned readers. Note particularly that last line from Johnson: "I've actually got thousands of editors looking over my shoulder." That seems to be the magic wording by which dinosaurs come to understand the importance of the incoming meteor.

Tim, how come your comments are lively and clever without smarmy piss artists raining on the parade? And can you teach that trick to Layne and Welch?

Posted by: Crid at September 20, 2004 at 05:11 AM

Ah, yes - and what would you have done if the WH had said something along the lines of "These don't look quite right - maybe you should investigate them a little more thoroughly"?

I'll tell you what you would have done. That Wednesday's 60 Minutes would have been dedicated to the Top Story of "WHITE HOUSE ATTEMPTS TO QUASH POTENTIALLY EXPLOSIVE AWOL STORY". You would have trotted out your two vaguely defined experts to say that gosh darn it, them memos looked pretty convincin' to them, while not mentioning the 17 other experts who essentially laughed them out of court. You would have invoked the Unholy Name of John Ashcroft. "Censorship!" you would have screamed, "The White House is trying to interfere with the news! Let the documents stand or fall on their own merits, but don't try and get them censored! Help! Help! We're being repressed!"

That's pretty much what would have happened, dude. You know it, I know it, the American people know it :). So stop kvitching and admit that you were outfoxed. Be a good sport for once in your sorry life.

Posted by: Sonetka at September 20, 2004 at 05:35 AM

Could this have had something to do with that stock sale?

Thank you for your email.

Although Local ****** has no influence over CBS and its programming and content decisions -- we are not owned by CBS/Viacom -- we do have a responsibility to our local viewers. Consequently, I shall immediately forward your email to CBS in NYC to ensure that the network is made fully aware of our local viewers' concerns.


Thanks for contacting Local **. We truly value the feedback -- both good and bad -- from our viewers.

Posted by: Rebecca at September 20, 2004 at 06:58 AM

Insignificant consumerist drone, thank you for your email.

Tremble, fool, for we are mighty. But not so mighty as to presume to trespass against that which is most exalted, CBS, the great eye, for it is our master! Its programming and content decisions -- we are not owned by CBS/Viacom -- we.. we.. do have a responsibility to our local viewers but.. I shall immediately forward your email to CBS in NYC, NO! I mustn't, I mustn't anger Him! But I must help the nice master!..

Anyway, thanks for contacting Local **. We truly value the feedback -- both good and bad -- from our viewers but you're going to have to take our word for that.

Posted by: Amos at September 20, 2004 at 10:39 AM

Pedro,
too right it's a train crash in slow motion. The driver's ignored all the signs so far and is now racing the Cannonball Express into the marshalling yard.

If only someone in the White House had waved a "red flag".

Posted by: Lofty at September 20, 2004 at 12:57 PM

stand by for the rather/bill bouqet interview on tv.

Posted by: roseco at September 20, 2004 at 01:15 PM

Hey, come on guys - those cracks about 60 Minutes' budget are a bit below the belt. CBS is a cash-strapped organisation struggling to compete in a cut-throat marketplace. It takes real coin to do the sort of heavy-lifting journalism that people like Jeff Harrell and Bill Ardolino do. Do you honestly think that these guys could have unearthed the forensic typography experts they did without a hefty check from the RNC?

Posted by: David Gillies at September 20, 2004 at 01:36 PM

A number of Rather's defenders suggest that he just reads the stuff, and that it is his producer who is soley responsible.
Yet here he is doing these trips, including one to Texas today to shore up the story. Hardly the actions of a disinterested news reader.

Posted by: MOik at September 20, 2004 at 02:24 PM

Why Austin? Dallas is closer to Baird and cheaper. Maybe he stopped in to see Ben Barnes on that trip? If you are chartering why not go to Abilene? Cut the drive to 30 miles.

Posted by: bullwinkle at September 20, 2004 at 03:45 PM

If CBS one of the BIG 3 stations in the US does not have one of the most lavish of budgets for their news. Well, I don't know who would.

Posted by: Jungus at September 21, 2004 at 03:26 AM