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Rather went on faith, not facts

Watching Dan Rather unravel over the past week has been something like watching a train wreck unfold: You know it’s all going to end badly, but you just can’t look away until you’ve seen how many cars ultimately go off the rails. Well, now we know, and there’s not much left to do but wave at the caboose as it careens over the side.

A little more than a week ago, the CBS anchor presented a “60 Minutes” segment produced by Mary Mapes, alleging not only that President Bush used his family’s influence to get special treatment from the Air National Guard but also that he defied an order to take a physical examination required of pilots and lost his flight status.

Over the years, there have been lots of stories about Bush’s apparently fitful service with the Guard. What made this one different was its reliance on what Rather said were previously undisclosed memoranda substantiating the allegations and purportedly written at the time by Lt. Col. Jerry B. Killian, Bush’s squadron commander, now dead. Where the alleged documents may have been all these years and who provided them to CBS remain a mystery. In less than 24 hours, questions were raised -- first on the Internet and, quickly, in the mainstream media -- about the documents’ authenticity.

Since then, the “60 Minutes” segment has gone from sensational revelation to controversial report to utter debacle.

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The weight of expert technical opinion is that the documents are forgeries, probably the product of a contemporary word-processing program rather than the IBM Selectric typewriters in use at the time. But there is no need to descend into an arcane discussion of how many kerns can dance on the head of a microchip to sort this out. CBS has admitted that it never has possessed or seen the originals. In other words, the credibility of its report turns on photocopies provided by an anonymous source.

No reputable document examiner will authenticate anything from a photocopy -- they simply are too easily manipulated. This is not complicated. Rather and Mapes, therefore, are in the position of having broadcast a report based on documents whose authenticity they cannot establish. It doesn’t matter whether the contents are genuine or not, because nobody -- not even “60 Minutes” -- can prove it from photocopies. You do not report what you cannot prove. This, too, is not complicated.

None of this kept Rather from repeatedly going on the air and defending the memoranda’s authenticity. One might have thought that his defense reached a low point when he aired an interview with Killian’s 86-year-old former secretary in which she said she did not believe the documents were authentic but that they did accurately reflect what was happening with Bush at the time.

Truth through forgery -- now there’s a novel concept.

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Rather, meanwhile, told the New York Times on Thursday, “This story is true. I believe in the authenticity of the documents.”

And there you have it: faith-based reporting.

Facing the music

Inevitably, bad things happen to good news organizations. The test of a serious journalistic enterprise is how it reacts to internal crisis.

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The Los Angeles Times had its Staples Center scandal; the Washington Post Janet Cooke’s fabricated Pulitzer Prize-winner; the New York Times had Jayson Blair; and USA Today, Jack Kelley. In each instance, the organization immediately and exhaustively investigated what had gone wrong and put the findings in their entirety before their readers. CNN did precisely the same thing after its so-called Tailwind scandal, as did NBC in 1992, when its “Dateline” newsmagazine was caught broadcasting staged events.

Thus far, no such action has been undertaken by CBS executives, which is worse than inexplicable.

The real danger here is that a preoccupation with CBS’ initial bumbling and subsequent malfeasance will keep people from asking a more fundamental question about the media’s performance in this presidential campaign. Over the past weeks, we’ve watched the candidates seesaw in the polls -- from tie to substantial Bush lead and, this week, back to a virtual dead heat. There is seldom one cause for shifts such as these, and certainly the successfully managed Republican National Convention gave the incumbent a larger-than-expected bounce in popularity, which simply may have dissipated.

But it also is true that Sen. John F. Kerry’s decline in the polls generally coincided with the high-water mark of the phony Swift boat controversy. Similarly, the president’s plunge occurred while false documents concerning his military service were getting a daily airing.

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The Swift boat nonsense had the effect it did because the serious news media were too lethargic and self-absorbed to overcome a collective distaste for the story and quickly expose the people behind the ads as a sloppy bunch of soreheads who had become the willing tools of a tiny cabal of moneyed Republicans. If the dissemination of forged military records now has diminished President Bush in the public’s eyes, it is because CBS broadcast a report that turned on recklessly incompetent journalism and then fled from its responsibility in the matter.

All the noise from the snarling, sweating partisans on both sides of the ideological divide notwithstanding, the real media story of the 2004 presidential campaign may not be bias but incompetence.

Attaching that adjective to CBS is a melancholy obligation. This, after all, is the house that Edward R. Murrow built. Anyone mindful of the legacy that keen and fearless man left to his network would want to make a tragedy of all this -- with Rather, Lear-like, roaring on the moors. But it isn’t that; what CBS has spun out over the last week is not drama but shabby farce. Rather and his network’s executives resemble nothing so much as the doddering, penniless inhabitants of some crumbling old pile, lurking behind curtains and muttering increasingly incoherent excuses to the bill collectors pounding at their door.

CBS’ initial report on President Bush’s National Guard service was an embarrassment to Murrow’s legacy. But the implications of that mistake pale alongside the potential consequences of the network’s continuing refusal to do what the situation now demands: to forthrightly admit error, to undertake an independent inquiry and, then, to give a clear public accounting of how this happened. If the current custodians of CBS News willfully refuse to keep faith with their viewers, they will have disgraced Murrow’s memory.

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