Monday, January 10, 2005

Rathergate - the CBS independent panel report

Click here for the CBS story on the report and the resulting four firings.

Compare the report portions cited at CBS with the questions raised by Powerline last week:
There is a story to be told here: a story about how CBS coordinated its attack on President Bush with the Democratic National Committee; a story about how fake documents were put into the hands of a mentally ill, obsessively anti-Bush crank named Bill Burkett; a story about how Burkett (if he can be believed) not only got the documents into the hands of 60 Minutes, but also into the hands of the Kerry campaign, via Max Cleland; a story about how left-wing CBS producer Mary Mapes pursued the Bush National Guard "story" for five years, beginning when he was Governor of Texas, without finding anything worth reporting until the fake documents came along; a story about how 60 Minutes was warned that the documents appeared to be fakes, but published them anyway; a story about how CBS relied on interviews with people who had neither met President Bush nor seen the documents, like Robert Strong, but carefully avoided talking to the key witnesses who actually had knowledge of relevant events, like Gen. "Buck" Staudt. Whom, by the way, they carelessly slandered in their broadcast.

But I doubt whether Thornburgh and Boccardi will tell that story. To conduct this investigation, you needed an investigator. An old-fashioned investigator who would go to Texas, track down Bill Burkett, and persuade him to talk. Who would immerse himself in the corrupt politics of Travis County, Texas, and pursue leads on who created the forgeries. Who would demand to see Mary Mapes' telephone records for the last two years, and track down every number she called. Who would make witnesses like Max Cleland either answer questions, or go on record as refusing to talk. Who would, in short, investigate.

CBS didn't employ an investigator. They employed a couple of distinguished 70-year-old gentlemen: exactly the wrong sort of people. Maybe Thornburgh and Boccardi had the sense to hire investigators, but I doubt it. My guess is that their "investigation" consisted essentially of interviewing CBS employees. At one point, I saw a news item where they proudly announced that they had talked to 36 CBS employees. Wow. What they needed to do was forget about CBS for a while, and go to Texas. If they only talked to CBS people, they would inevitably come away with the impression that 60 Minutes was well-intentioned but regrettably failed to be sufficiently critical of the documents' authenticity, and therefore fell for a possible hoax.

I say "possible" because I doubt that the Thornburgh/Boccardi report will draw any conclusion about the documents' falsity. I suspect that they will be agnostic about the documents, much as Mr. Pein was in his recent Columbia Journalism Review article. If I'm right, the report will be useless.

The fundamental question here is whether CBS was the victim of a hoax, or the perpetrator of a hoax. It has been our view for a long time that Rather and his colleagues were perpetrators, not victims, in part because the documents were such obvious fakes that it strains credulity to suppose that they were actually fooled. When you read the Thornburgh/Boccardi report, keep that question constantly in mind: victim, or perpetrator?

Compare the questions that Powerline asked with the response that the Thornburgh/Boccardi report provides. Based on what I have read, the Report is inadequate and fails to address the real issue. The Report chalks up the whole affair to competition and journalistic haste to get the story on the air. The Report ignores the 5 year effort of Mary Mapes to dig up just such a story about Bush. This was not the product of haste, but of deliberate falsification at some level. The Report fails to address the question of how high of a level.

On a bright note, the Report apparently credits the New Media to some extent and provides some context regarding how quickly the exposure of the forgery spread:
. . Finally, by about 3 P.M., Matt Drudge, the author of the widely read Drudge Report website, had joined the fray, and, thereafter, the onslaught of attacks on the authenticity of the Killian documents was unrelenting . . .

Keep this in mind the next time the blogosphere and the new media need to right some wrong.
Tuesday morning update.

Powerline weighs in with commentary here:
The other thing I'd really like to know, though, is why CBS moved the 60 Minutes program up from the end of September to September 8. The Thornburgh report talks about this change, and blames it for the fact that the show was put together in too much of a hurry.

But why? Someone made the decision to move the program up; the report doesn't tell us who. I'll give you a hypothesis as to why it happened: the Kerry campaign was dying because of the Swift Boat Vets' attacks, and CBS was desperate--with or without explicit communication with the DNC and the Kerry campaign--to do something to stem the tide. To "change the momentum of an election," as Michael Smith emailed to Mary Mapes.

If that hypothesis isn't right, can someone give us another one?

Click here for Powerline's big summary - 95 trackbacks and counting. [Who needs the MSM anymore?]

Click here to see how Mapes takes advantage of the holes in the Thornburgh report.

Weekly Standard has a good summary of the report's shortcomings and a roundup of blogosphere opinion.

And finally, click here for Powerline's take on the New York Times' whitewash of the whitewash:
And so on, ad nearly infinitum. But, because virtually everyone in the CBS News organization shared Mary Mapes's politics and objective (i.e., the election of John Kerry), skeptical questions were not asked. If there is a single overriding explanation for how a fake story, intended to influence a Presidential election through the use of forged documents, could have been promulgated by 60 Minutes, it is the lack of diversity at CBS News.

For some years now, the party line of the mainstream media has been: of course we're pretty much all Democrats, but that doesn't influence our news coverage. If nothing else, Rathergate should put that defense to rest once and for all.

In a couple of weeks, I will be participating in a conference at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, sponsored by the Kennedy School along with the Harvard Law School and the Shorenstein Center on Press and Politics. The subject will be journalism, blogging, credibility and ethics. Judging from the list of participants, I suspect that most of the discussion may be about how bloggers can become more credible by adopting the standards of mainstream journalists. My own perspective will be a bit different. So far, the blogosphere has a far better record of honesty and accuracy than mainstream organs like the New York Times and CBS. This isn't entirely a matter of personality; it is also a function of the checks and balances of the blogosphere, which are far stronger and more effective than the alleged "checks and balances" of the mainstream media, which, in the absence of political and intellectual diversity, may not operate at all.

That last paragraph makes a great transition into a discussion of where the blogosphere is headed in the wake of MSM's greatest defeat. More later.

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