60 Minutes' Non-Denial Denial
Red-faced CBS tries to salvage its Bush scoop
By John M. Higgins -- Broadcasting & Cable, 9/19/2004 8:00:00 PM
Regrets, they have a few. Around CBS last week, there was a lot of second-guessing about how it handled its own Memogate.
Yet, at week's end, despite mounting evidence that memos used in a 60 Minutes report alleging a young George W. Bush received preferential treatment when he was in the National Guard during the Vietnam War were forgeries, CBS News continued to stand by its report.
As information countering the veracity of the documents kept surfacing last week, morale at the venerable news organization took a nosedive. "We're in a total state of shock that our people are out there, whether it's Dan Rather or anybody else, saying it doesn't matter if the memos are real if the story is true," says one CBS News insider. "There were too many problems with those memos for them ever to have been used, and it gets clearer with each day that red flags were being raised about [the memos] all along."
The staffer noted, "We seem to just love giving red meat to the people who would love to bring us down. With so many doubts about the documents being raised, we should be trying to find out if somebody set us up and why."
Rather, the correspondent on the original Sept. 8 report and a Sept. 15 follow-up, is front and center defending the story. To his credit, he's not ducking for cover.
"A wealthy Texas oilman did use his influence as the then-speaker to get George W. Bush a special place in the National Guard," Rather told B&C early last week, adding, "It hasn't been denied."
It still hasn't. But, at press time, Rather and company were scrambling to authenticate the documents and save face—if they still can. It will be tough to verify beyond a reasonable doubt that the memos were authored by Lt. Col. Jerry Killian, Bush's National Guard unit commander.
CBS had red flags, had they chosen to obey them. Emily Will, one of the document experts used by CBS to authenticate the memos told B&C she warned CBS producers that there were problems with the two she was shown (one was used in the piece; the other never made it to air). Although Will didn't call them outright forgeries, she raised many of the same questions that came after the story aired, including typography and the "th" superscript in the phrase "111th Fighter Interceptor Squad."
She says CBS that promised to send more documents, including some that were firmly established to be from Killian. "I raised my concerns on Sunday. They said they had more questioned documents and known documents," she says. But she never received anything else. She even called CBS the day before the initial story aired to repeat concerns, but she got no additional documents to examine.
Meanwhile, even when CBS seemingly tried to defend itself, it ended up joining the chorus that the Killian memos were fakes. But it didn't deny the story.
On the Sept. 15 edition of 60 Minutes, Rather interviewed 86-year-old Marian Carr Knox, a former secretary of Killian and other officers in his outfit. She also told Rather the memos were forgeries because of the terminology used, although she claimed they accurately reflected Killian's view of Bush. "I know that I didn't type them. However, the information in those is correct," she told Rather.
The White House had not attacked the story directly, preferring to let its surrogates do the heavy lifting. And anyway, the second 60 Minuteswith Knox's credible affirmation of Killian's view toward Bush, was the least-viewed show in the time period among the Big Four networks on Sept. 15.
And other Republicans were kicking CBS around for Bush. Rep. Christopher Cox (R-Calif.) demanded a Congressional investigation and, in a letter to Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), resurrected the congressional hearings after the 2000 election-coverage miscues. Then, he pointed out, CBS News gave a "vow that the competitive drive to get the story first would be subordinated to 'making sure we are correct,' given that the stakes—the outcome of the presidential election—were so high."
But an aide to House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) says Congress is "not interested in kicking around that political football."
While the controversy over the 60 Minutes report raged into its second week, the mini-industry of Web sites helped fuel it. 60 Minutes didn't simply flash the memos on the air; it posted them on its Web site for anyone to download.
That allowed critics to e-mail the facsimiles around to other document experts, who quickly challenged whether typewriters in 1972 would produce that typeface.
Every little nugget gets dissected endlessly on Web sites, including the existing anti-CBS sites, Ratherbiased.com and FreeRepublic.com, plus some that seemingly materialized overnight like Rathergate.com and Ratheraggregator.com. Last week, an entrepreneur could have started another site: Ratherembarrassed.
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