In the distance, one could hear the plaintive, thin whining of a very small violin as Dan Rather mournfully intoned, "We made a mistake in judgment, and for that I am sorry. It was an error that was made, however, in good faith and in the spirit of trying to carry on a CBS News tradition of investigative reporting without fear or favoritism." It brings to mind an observation made by Ralph Waldo Emerson of an unscrupulous acquaintance: "The louder he talked of his honor, the faster we counted our spoons." After Rathergate, the first thought of any critical mind upon hearing Dan report anything -- including that the Pope is Catholic, that the Earth is round, or that fire is hot -- should be: Is Rather telling the truth? Since CBS and Rather have elevated rumor and supposition to high journalism, let's indulge ourselves a bit and evaluate Rather's claim to be favoritism-free.
Newshound Dan Rather, 72, was rumored to be considering retirement in '05 or early '06 after John Kerry had gracefully ascended into the White House. Conservatives suspect that Rather wanted to assist that ascendancy and leave TV with one grand triumph: nailing President George W. Bush's hide to the door of the CBS "Black Rock" News Fortress in NYC. For Rather, whose obsession with destroying the Bush family has grown to Ahabian dimensions, it would be the sweetest of victories and would finally pull him out of Walter Cronkite's shadow. No longer would he be the borderline-creepy, suspiciously intense, less-trusted replacement for the most-trusted TV newsman in American history.
No one would remember the nickname "Gunga Dan," given Rather by his eye-rolling CBS cohorts after he donned native headdress to cover the Soviet-Afghan War. Or that 1988 special, "CBS Reports: The Wall Within," about Vietnam vets who were driven by atrocities they committed during their war service into insanity so deep that one was shown living in the forest and baying at the moon. Unfortunately for the sake of the story, only one of the vets had seen combat and his recollections were full of holes. The others had completely fabricated their war stories, including one lurid tale told by a vet of his skinning 50 Vietnamese peasants alive in a single hour. A minimal amount of fact-checking could have disproved the stories but CBS and Rather didn't feel the need. Even after others debunked the program, it was included in a CBS video "history" of the Vietnam War. For years, CBS and Rather insisted the documentary was true or, in a presage of its current Rathergate position, true enough despite the falsity of the evidence used to support it. Then there was the most notorious moment of high diva-dom by any television newsperson ever, Rather's refusal in 1987 to leave his dressing room to go on air after becoming annoyed when told a tennis match would intrude into his program's time. That incident had caused the sainted Cronkite to harrumph of Rather, who was pulling down a reported $2.5 million a year for his services at the time, "I would have fired him. There's no excuse for it." Rather managed to squeeze out of the tennis fracas, in another foreshadowing of Rathergate, with a pompous half-apology.
The incident seemed destined to become an obscure footnote in TV history until 1988, when it popped up during a live interview with then-Vice President George H. W. Bush, who was running for the presidency. Rather had done a series of inoffensive live interviews with other presidential candidates and his staff assured the Bush campaign that Bush's appearance would be similarly bland. Instead, Rather ran several minutes of negative reporting insinuating Bush had lied about the Iran-Contra scandal, then demanded the vice president answer questions that Bush insisted had already been answered publicly, under oath. Bush acknowledged that he and the Reagan-Bush administration had made mistakes but said it was because they wanted to free American hostages, including a CIA agent who was being tortured to death. Rather refused to accept Bush's responses and repeatedly interrupted. Finally, Bush stated that he wanted his candidacy to be evaluated for more than one misstep and he famously asked Rather "How would you like it if I judged your career by those seven minutes when you walked off the set in New York?" Rather was reduced to stuttering fury that concluded with a favored expression of his: "Clearly, some unanswered questions remain."
Rather's ugly, disrespectful performance was widely criticized, but instead of moderating his anti-Bush attacks, Rather grew more openly antagonistic, twisting every news story to attack Bush. This animosity often reached laughably absurd levels, as in a 1989 piece about a capital gains tax cut that Bush had gotten through Congress. Rather described it as a "giveaway," declared it a tax cut "for the wealthy" three times, charged that Democrats supporting the cut had "bucked" their leaders and "abandoned" their party, then implied that Bush was lying to the American public all in just four sentences.
On another occasion, Rather even challenged Bush's World War II service. Bush, the youngest U.S. Navy pilot of the war, had flown 58 carrier-based bombing missions. During an attack on a Japanese island where the garrison commander beheaded and cannibalized American prisoners, Bush's plane was shot up and caught fire. He completed the bombing run, then parachuted into shark-infested waters, surviving only because an American submarine spotted him and rescued him while under fire from Japanese artillery. The design of his aircraft made it impossible to see his two crewmen, but, when they didn't respond to his call over the aircraft's intercom, he concluded they were dead and he jumped from the plane. Another pilot reported seeing a second crewman jump but saw no parachute open. Only Bush survived. For the mission, Bush was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for bravery in action.
In 2004, Rather would eschew criticism of Kerry's war service, but he found Bush's service history fair game. Rather repeated a vile story that other news programs refused to touch, which charged Bush could have saved the lives of his two crewmen if he had waited longer before bailing out or attempted a water landing. Rather ended his reportage with a scornful, "That's not exactly what he [Bush] told CBS News." Rather's disdain for President George H. W. Bush wasn't matched by criticism of Bill Clinton. Most notably, there was the fawning interview with Hillary and Bill Clinton in 1993, after CBS paired Rather with Connie Chung as his co-anchor for the "CBS Evening News." Rather, eyes bright with admiration, had gushed, "If we could be one-hundredth as great as you [Bill] and Hillary Rodham Clinton have been in the White House, we'd take it right now and walk away winners!"
Rather and Chung never did walk away as winners. Their partnership ended badly in 1995, with nasty rumors about how Rather had been infuriated that Chung was dispatched to cover the Oklahoma City Bombing instead of him, and how he exploited a flub made there by Chung to push her out of the "CBS Evening News" nest, effectively ruining her career. All these humiliating, clumsily biased, and risible moments would be forgotten if Rather could destroy George W. Bush.
For five years, he and CBS investigated Bush's service in the Texas Air National Guard, eagerly searching for anything that might suggest Bush had not earned his honorable discharge. Then Bill Burkett, a disgruntled Texas Guardsman who has been telling contradictory tales about Bush and the Guard for years, supplied Rather's producer with memos supposedly written by Lt. Col. Jerry B. Killian, Bush's commander in the Guard, dead for two decades. The memos indicated that Bush had benefited from special treatment. Conveniently, Ben Barnes, Texas Attorney General in the 1970s and later Speaker of the Texas House, popped up to claim he had used his influence to get Bush his post in the Guard. Rather rushed the story onto the air and, for a moment, he must have felt the sweet vapors of victory wafting round his head. Within hours, his scoop began to fall apart.
One fact was immediately obvious: Dan Rather doesn't do much typing. Anyone who has used one of the several million copies of Microsoft Word can see that the memos look like a Microsoft Word document. Indeed, it wasn't long before internet bloggers posted sophisticated evaluations of the memos exposing them as fakes, but beyond the discussion of proportional fonts, formatting, and the misuse of military forms and terms, there was the blunt fact that anyone with Microsoft Word could produce an identical memo.
The wife and son of Killian claimed that the memos did not reflect Killian's opinion of President Bush. They said he liked the young flier and hadn't given him any special treatment. Retired Col. Maurice Udell, who had helped train Bush and had served with Killian in Vietnam, expressed disgust with the CBS report. He also thought well of Bush's service and didn't believe Bush had been given special treatment.
Finally, Marian Carr Knox, 86, Killian's secretary in the Guard, came forward to say she had never typed any such memos. This wound to Rather was mitigated when Knox, who said she had liked young Bush but hated his presidency, claimed the memos were truthful in content even if they were fake. With Rather leading her, she gossiped about her feelings and the purported feelings of others, even claiming to know Killian's opinion of Bush better than Killian's family. Rather and CBS felt a moment of ease. The evidence might be fake, but the story was TRUE: They had thirty-year-old, second-hand gossip from someone antagonistic to the Bush presidency to prove it! Rather and CBS soon admitted they had been "misled." After running a story meant to destroy a presidency and subvert an election, they had the chutzpah to portray themselves as the victims of the fiasco. But even if you are willing to believe Rather and CBS honestly misidentified the documents as genuine, there was the second part of their program, the testimony of Ben Barnes.
Barnes has gotten far less scrutiny than the shockingly laughable forgeries, but he turns out to be equally absurd. A personal friend of John Kerry, he is a Democratic fundraiser and lobbyist, who participated in the notorious "coffees," that raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for Bill Clinton. He was listed on Kerry's official website as "Campaign Vice-Chair" and credited with raising over $100,000 for Kerry. Barnes, who has a summer home near Kerry's Nantucket summer home, committed himself to Kerry's election in 2001 on the grounds of the Nantucket Golf Club. Barnes held numerous fundraisers for Kerry and earned "Super-bundler" status for his ability to shake big bucks out of fat cats. He was rumored to be a sure cabinet member in a Kerry White House. Senate Majority leader Tom Daschle nicknamed Barnes the "Fifty-first Democratic senator" because of the influence he wielded.
These connections to Kerry and the Democratic Party should have lifted an eyebrow at CBS. What should have dropped their jaws was the fact that Barnes had previously testified under oath that no one in the Bush family had asked him to help the young Bush. Finally, after Rather aired Barnes' smear, Barnes' daughter Amy came forward to reluctantly charge her father with lying. She said he had told her the Bush family hadn't approached him, directly or indirectly, but he was now claiming otherwise in hopes of selling a book about his life. Barnes' daughter also said she had been pressured to recant her story.
Rather and CBS found nothing odd in using a partisan political operative (a term Rather used to malign critics of Rathergate) to attack President Bush. Any doubts about Barnes, like any skepticism about the memos, was dismissed in the belief that the Guard story was true, even without proof. Like the banditos in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, they were claiming, "Facts? We don't need no stinking facts!"
As Rather might say, "Questions remain unanswered." Who forged the memos? What did the Kerry campaign and the Democratic National Committee (DNC) know about the forged memos, and when did they know it? Did they and CBS co-operate to concoct the story? In the past, the public expected the media to act responsibly, even when telling stories that might help causes the media favored. Rather and CBS News have proven that this is not a realistic expectation, even when their actions might taint a presidential election. In this case, bloggers and the alternative media shot the phony story down, but can we rely on this balance, especially if the next phony story is less obviously a pack of lies? What might have happened if the memos had been forged just a bit better?