A few weeks ago here - September 12, 2004 - Bush's Bad Day at Black Rock (CBS) - Just Above Sunset covered the September 8 CBS broadcast which presented memos on "60 Minutes II" allegedly written by a colonel concerning how George Bush behaved in the Texas Air National Guard. The reporter was Dan Rather, the managing editor of the CBS evening news.
According to the memorandums, Bush refused to obey orders and had a "bad attitude." One Lieutenant Coronal Jerry Killian, now dead and gone, also said the future president could not qualify to fly jet planes because he did not show up for his physical, disobeying a direct order. But the memos have been questioned and appear to be forgeries. Killian's secretary, who did all his typing and is still with us, said she didn't type the memos - though she told CBS they were the colonel's thoughts. Weak stuff.
It seems handwriting experts hired by CBS said they warned that the documents might not be authentic. And there was a lot of this and that on whether the memos were typed in the seventies on an IBM Selectric typewriter, or created with word-processing software at a Kinko's in Abilene, Texas. (A good discussion of that matter is here.)
On the 14th Dan Rather in his evening news broadcast finally acknowledged that there are serious questions about the authenticity of the documents he use on the initial broadcast. (A summary of that is here.)
If you follow the news you've seen the reaction. Rather should resign and there should be a congressional investigation. Joe Scarborough on MSNBC on the 23rd devotes his entire show to a discussion of whether Rather and CBS have committed some crime - something like trying to unlawfully influence an election through the use of forged documents. The liberal media is evil, and so on and so forth.
From the Democrats we got this on the 21st -
Stone won't comment - so no denial. (More background on Stone, a prot?g? and long-time friend of Karl Rove is here - years ago Bob Dole fired the guy after this business about Stone and his wife and the sex clubs hit the news. Juicy stuff.)
Washington, D.C. - In response to false Republican accusations regarding the CBS documents, Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe issued this statement:
"In today's New York Post, Roger Stone, who became associated with political `dirty tricks' while working for Nixon, refused to deny that he was the source the CBS documents.
"Will Ed Gillespie or the White House admit today what they know about Mr. Stone's relationship with these forged documents? Will they unequivocally rule out Mr. Stone's involvement? Or for that matter, others with a known history of dirty tricks, such as Karl Rove or Ralph Reed?"
Did Dan Rather and CBS try to subvert democracy by presenting, as news, documents they knew were false, and slander a sitting president in an attempt to get him voted out of office? Or did Karl Rove and his crew from the White House set up CBS to make them look like either fools or devils, and thus drive everyone to trust only Fox News - those patriots who back the president no matter what and say those who oppose Bush in any way hate America and are committing treason?
Stay tuned, or don't.
Well, Dan Rather is the one taking the hit. And there is an obvious irony here. As Jon Stewart of The Daily Show, Comedy Central's faux news program, pointed out as he opened his show recently - "We begin tonight with a simple, indisputable fact: as a young man, President George W. Bush benefited from family connections to get a place in the Texas Air National Guard, thus avoiding service in Vietnam. As you would guess, this has led to calls for the resignation of Dan Rather."
Ah, yep. These were additional supporting documents of something fairly obvious.
So what happened with CBS?
I've never much liked Tina Brown - when she ran the New Yorker for those few years she turned it into a magazine of style, sex and gossip and it's only now recovering - but lots of commentators are saying her column this week may be the definitive one on this CBS, Dan Rather business. Brown talks about the pressure in news these days. "Every editor, producer and reporter knows that the warp speed of the news cycle means we are all only one step ahead of some career-ending debacle." And that may be true. Rather lost a gamble.
See Breaking the News, Then Becoming It
Tina Brown - The Washington Post - Thursday, September 23, 2004; Page C01
Fleshing out her contention we get this -
Ah, conflict! And a bad decision made under pressure.
... For Rather and CBS, all the conflicting tensions that torture journalists and producers day and night came together. The broiling partisan heat, the pressure to get out of third place with a scoop, the hot breath of cable news, the race to beat all the hacks and scribes who keep nibbling away at the story (your story, the story you've spent five years trying to get right), the baying of the bloggers, the sick sense of always being news-managed by the White House's black arts, the longing to show the Web charlatans and cable-heads that rumpled-trenchcoat news is still where the action is, the pounding inner soundtrack that asks: Am I a watchdog or a poodle? A journalist or an entertainer? A tough newsman or a mouse with mousse?
All this pandemonium in his ears is what made a legendary news icon go over Niagara Falls in a barrel, as David Gergen put it on CNN. And when the barrel hit the rocks, he stuck to the line that always used to work before in this movie: I Stand by My Story! Rather may have been eerily calm when he finally went on the air to announce, "I no longer have the confidence in these documents that would allow us to continue vouching for them journalistically." But he looked as if his psyche had been through Hurricane Ivan.
And news folks all know that pressure, from the competition and now from bloggers -
Well, it's a tough business.
Journalists the length and breadth of the land publicly beat up on Dan, but privately -- even in the capital of schadenfreude -- they were not as gleeful as you might expect. Every editor, producer and reporter knows that the warp speed of the news cycle means we are all only one step ahead of some career-ending debacle. But still the panic to beat the competition trumps every other concern. Reports this month that Fox News had surpassed the other networks' ratings with its GOP convention coverage only inflamed the terror of mounting obsolescence.
Fear of missing the bandwagon is behind all the hype about the brilliance of bloggers who blew the whistle. You'd think "Buckhead," who first spotted the flaws in the documents, is the cyberworld's Woodward and Bernstein. Now the conventional wisdom is that the media will be kept honest and decent by an army of incorruptible amateur gumshoes. In fact, cyberspace is populated by a coalition of political obsessives and pundits on speed who get it wrong as much as they get it right. It's just that they type so much they are bound to nail a story from time to time.
The rapturing about the bloggers is the journalistic equivalent of the stock market's Internet bubble. You can see the news chiefs feeling as spooked as the old-style CEOs in the '90s who had built their companies over 20 years and then saw kids in backward baseball caps on the cover of Fortune. It finally drove them nuts. It was why we saw Time Warner's buttoned-down corporate dealmaker Gerald Levin tearing off his tie and swooning into the embrace of AOL's Steve Case.
The equivalent today is when news outfits that built their reputations on check-and-double-check pick up almost any kind of assertion and call it a "source." Or feel so chased by the new-media mujaheddin they start trusting tips garnered from God-knows-where by a partisan wack job in Texas.
And Brown does say this really is pretty much "Karl Rove's wet dream: a living, breathing example of ostensible liberal media bias with which to bludgeon the rest of the press into an even deeper defensive crouch."
And echoing Stewart she adds this -
Is he? I fear she is right. The press will be good little girls and boys from now on out. It's a dramatic lesson in being extra, extra careful.
Documents or no documents, everyone knows Bush's dad got him out of Vietnam. Everyone knows he thought he had better, funner things to do than go to a bunch of boring National Guard drills. (Only a killjoy like John Kerry would spend his carefree youth racking up high-minded demonstrations of courage and conscience, right?) Like O.J. Simpson's infamous "struggle" to squeeze his big hand into the glove, the letter was just a lousy piece of evidence that should never have been produced in court. Now because CBS, like Marcia Clark, screwed up the prosecution, Bush is going to walk.
But Brown has an idea that the whole thing boils down to the "romance of news reporting," such as it is.
Ah, bitter medicine.
As for Dan and CBS, it wasn't really politics that drove them over the edge, was it? It was romance. That's the sad part. How good did it feel when they broke the Abu Ghraib story just a beat before Seymour Hersh at the New Yorker? How satisfying is it when a real news sensation takes hold instead of some tabloid trash moment (like Janet Jackson's flashing breast)? A veteran newsman is in the twilight of a long and distinguished career. He just wanted to taste that sweet medicine one more time.
Rick, The News Guy in Atlanta, agrees with Brown -
That makes sense too.
My theory on why CBS rushed to air, by the way: Seymour Hersch was on Terry Gross "Fresh Air" [NPR] a week or so ago, and he mentioned that CBS had originally been the sole recipient of all the Abu Ghraib material, but was then asked by the government not to run with the story, and they sat on it. Meanwhile, the sources of the information got annoyed that CBS was doing nothing with it, so they took the stuff to Hersch. I guess CBS got wind that the New Yorker was about to run with it, so they came running in with it just ahead of them. I suspect that CBS, smarting from someone stealing much of their thunder, vowed to never let it happen again.
And Hersch has been on fire, and CBS sleeping, but this is one hell of a way to wake up.
Hersch on fire? Just Above Sunset has noted that.
May 2, 2004 - It is all a matter of having the right attitude...
May 16, 2004 - Responsibility - Military Style... and legal issues
May 23, 2004: Notes on the War Scandals
July 18, 2004 - Hollywood Feels Like Steamy Florida
This CBS scandal - be it an honest but stupid mistake, or a nefarious but incompetent plot to damage George Bush, or a sinister plot to undermine the mainstream press and make them all behave more like Fox News - is taking up much of the available air in the room; that is, a lot of column inches and broadcast and cable hours have been devoted to it. And with how things are going now in Iraq, that can only help the Bush campaign.
It is most curious. I have no theory. I report. You decide.
Tina Brown does say this all is "Karl Rove's wet dream: a living, breathing example of ostensible liberal media bias with which to bludgeon the rest of the press into an even deeper defensive crouch."
It works - as the Associated Press reports here (Saturday, September 25, 2004) -
So CBS, sensing this would make it look like they were picking on Bush, will withhold the piece until after the election.
CBS News has shelved a "60 Minutes" report on the rationale for war in Iraq because it would be "inappropriate" to air it so close to the presidential election, the network said on Saturday.
The report on weapons of mass destruction was set to air on Sept. 8 but was put off in favor of a story on President Bush's National Guard service. The Guard story was discredited because it relied on documents impugning Bush's service that were apparently fake.
CBS News spokeswoman Kelli Edwards would not elaborate on why the timing of the Iraq report was considered inappropriate.
... The CBS statement followed a report in the online edition of Newsweek that described the frustration of CBS News reporters and producers who said the network had concluded that it could not legitimately criticize the president because of the questions about the National Guard report.
According to the Newsweek report, the "60 Minutes" segment was to have detailed how the administration relied on false documents when it said Iraq had tried to buy a lightly processed form of uranium, known as yellowcake, from Niger. The administration later acknowledged that the information was incorrect and that the documents were most likely fake.
The Newsweek article said the segment was to have included the first on-camera interview with Elisabetta Burba, the Italian journalist who was given the fake documents and who provided them to a United States Embassy for verification. The documents were sent to Washington, where some officials embraced them as firm evidence that Iraq was aggressively trying to make nuclear weapons.
The expected liberal reaction from Kevin Drum here - "...the resulting debacle has now convinced CBS that they shouldn't air any negative stories about George Bush for the next six weeks -- even if they're true. That's some courageous journalism for you. If this is the liberal media, conservatives can have it."
Rove is giggling. The press is being rolled. The press will indeed be good little girls and boys from now on out. As least CBS has been taken care of.
Footnote on the New Yorker -
As I said above, when Tina Brown ran the New Yorker for those few years she turned it into a magazine of style, sex and gossip and it's only now recovering. I thought she did damage.
Rick, The News Guy in Atlanta, said this -
I will admit I always liked it too, but I was an English teacher and when Tina Brown cut back on the fiction and poetry and upped the trendy and the sexy, I missed my old read. But yes, she increased the geopolitical, and that was good. But those odd, long essays on the history of the orange or whatever were my intellectual comfort food for years.
There's something else you and I disagree on. Although I've never been crazy about her personally, I thought New Yorker was generally boring and inconsequential until she came along. Although I wasn't crazy about her preoccupation with sex, the articles on politics and foreign affairs were must-reads for me. Although it did seem to take a dip after she left, it's still my favorite magazine.
Footnote on Fox News -
"All of the traditional media is against us. The traditional media in this country is in tune with the elite, not the people. That is why we're not liked by the traditional media. That's not us."
- Rupert Murdoch here
"Far be it for me to contradict the saintly Mr. Murdoch, but when his usually unnamed minions spend their days trumpeting their volume of viewers and readers (100 billion flies can't be wrong) and anonymously kicking the shins at every rival and every critic in a way that would embarrass Robert Novak, I'm afraid he's going to have to face the horrible truth: he is the "media elite."
- Keith Olbermann of MSNBC here
Tip of the hat to BartCop for the quotes ...
Footnote on Rick, The News Guy in Atlanta -
Rick finished working for CNN in 1985, although he did publish his TV News Journal after that, until 1988. We've known each other since the mid-sixties and I consider him an "old school" journalist sort - one of the guys who actually knows what fair and balanced really means. There are not many of them left.