Rathergate

So far, I’ve shied away from controversial political issues on this blog, but I have to warn you, I am feeling very harshly toward this story.

CBS News Concludes It Was Misled on National Guard Memos, Network Officials Say (New York Times) – After days of expressing confidence about the documents used in a “60 Minutes” report that raised new questions about President Bush’s National Guard service, CBS News officials have grave doubts about the authenticity of the material, network officials said last night.

CBS backs off Guard story (USATODAY.com). USATODAY.com – CBS News acknowledged Monday that it received disputed documents critical of President Bush’s service in the Texas Air National Guard from a former Texas Guard officer who now says he lied about where he got them and has doubts about their authenticity. [Yahoo! News – Reader Ratings]

I think the forged Killian documents are a much bigger deal than most people realize at this point. This scandal will have far-reaching consequences in the world of journalism regarding investigative reporting, bias, and the expectations we have for the news media.  

As Mr. Rather circled the wagons around his “reporting” last week, he simultaneously tried to separate the forged documents from the story. It could not be done. I must admit I didn’t see the original airing of the 60 Minutes piece, but I do clearly remember listening to CBS Radio News the morning after. The story wasn’t that there were new questions, the story was that documents had been obtained that cast new questions.

In one of Dan Rather’s nightly defenses of the documents and the story last week, he took a snide attitude toward blogs, implying that they could not be considered credible. His disdain toward blogs is ironic, but not because they were right and he was wrong. His attitude toward blogs was ironic because it was his own shoddy work on this story that gave the blogs their voice. Nature abhors a vacuum, and with the vacuum of inquisitiveness, in came people, ordinary people, to take the place of those not doing their job. When the press stops asking questions in this age of electronic media, then someone will pick up the slack, whether Dan Rather likes it or not.

The most obvious new question to pop into my mind yesterday when I saw Rather finally claim to have been “mislead” about the origin of the bogus memos is this: Why didn’t you take a minute to check with the person your “source” said he got them from? Find out if it came from that person. Ask the person, “Did this come from you?” That’s Journalism 101.

Mr. Rather’s final “defense” of the story seems to be that “no one has challenged the thrust of the story.” The fact is that many have, including the Killian family. People have come forward who had information to the contrary saying CBS had come to them, but when the news producers couldn’t get the story they wanted to hear out of them, they didn’t include their accounts in the report.

No, the White House has not been vocal on this scandal. The mistake here is to assume that it is the White House needs to challenge stories the media runs, thus doing the reporters’ jobs for them. Answer campaign rhetoric by the other side, sure. But does the press really see themselves as opposition to the President? Does their expectancy that the White House answer their reporting mean that they’ve left the balance out by design? I guess throwing out unfounded accusations and waiting for someone else to refute them is easier than actually doing some investigation.

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