Monday, January 17, 2005

Whitewash continued?

The Weekly Standard's online essays are pounding CBS, and with good reason. CBS is trumpeting the Memogate Panel assertion that the Panel could not attribute CBS's failure to follow its own standards in issuing the Bush/National Guard report to CBS's political bias.

That bias is well-established: (1) Mary Mapes' five-year quest to "get" something to prove the (false) rumors about Bush's National Guard service, (2) Mapes' use of anti-Bush only sources with various axes to grind, (3) the deceptive "authentication" process, (4) CBS's efforts to assist Bill Burkett in meeting with the Kerry campaign, (5) CBS's timing of the report, (6) CBS's ignoring of the Swift Boat vets' charges, none of which have been disproved.

Jonathan Last reiterates that the Panel report is a whitewash. He notes that:

Only on closer examination do the report's core weaknesses become clear. For while it includes quite a lot of detail, its authors decline to draw conclusions on two essential factual matters: Were the documents CBS relied on copies of authentic 1972 memos? And was the reporting of them motivated by political bias? Without a final judgment on these counts, the report is useless--or worse.

John Podhoretz is less charitable:
. . . doing a story on George W. Bush's National Guard service wasn't exactly controversial. There had been dozens of stories on the matter in the mainstream media all year. And the documents weren't the only new aspect of the CBS story. Rather and Mapes did get an influential Texas politician named Ben Barnes to say on camera that he had intervened to land George W. Bush a slot in the Air National Guard back in 1968. That was a sleazy and unverifiable claim on its own, as Barnes spent most of that year in Switzerland, is an admitted liar, and was one of the biggest fundraisers for John Kerry. But it was new for network TV.

The problem with the story wasn't that it was rushed to air. The problem with the story wasn't that it violated journalistic protocols. The problem was that the story was a lie based on a fraud, and a conveniently timed lie at that--coming as it did only eight weeks before the nation was to go to the polls. And the lie was laid out before the world for all to see in a matter of hours.

The documents weren't exposed as possible fabrications. They were exposed as undeniable fabrications. Why is this so hard for CBS and for Thornburgh-Boccardi to accept? Because once you accept their spuriousness, you can't stop there. You have to ask the question: Why would everybody at CBS fall for such crude forgeries--forgeries so blatant that a lawyer with no particular expertise in document verification could spot them a few hours after the fact?

The report reveals that Mary Mapes had every reason to be skeptical about the provenance of the documents. She procured them from a source with an axe to grind against George W. Bush. She had located the source with help from the editor of a hysterically anti-Bush website. She told her source, Bill Burkett, that she was worried the documents were a "political dirty trick." She hired two document examiners who told her they had grave misgivings about the documents. Despite all this, Mapes barreled forward.

And Podhoretz notes one fact in the production of the now-infamous report that no other commentator (that I've seen) has commented on:
Everybody else at CBS seemed to take Mapes's word for it that the documents were kosher. But here's the thing: Mapes's superiors knew before the story aired that her reporting was slanted against Bush in an obvious and undisguised manner. The evidence for this is that Mapes's superiors took the unusual step of editing the segment themselves to remove a vociferous personal attack on Bush by David Hackworth, the decorated Vietnam veteran who knew absolutely nothing about the Texas Air National Guard or the documents or much of anything else about the future president's military service.

The inclusion and removal of the Hackworth remarks is the smoking gun here. By editing Hackworth out, CBS News president Andrew Heyward (who kept his job) and his deputy Betsy West (who lost hers) were not trying to provide balance to an unbalanced report. They were trying to hide the motivating animus behind the segment. With Hackworth in, they would not have had what the CIA used to call "plausible deniability"--the ability to pretend that the only reason for doing the story was to get the facts out.

Ultimately, Terry Eastland notes that CBS's constant denial of its obvious bias may only hurt both its credibility and its ability to recover from this debacle:
The panel's no-bias conclusion has brought sighs of relief inside CBS. It shouldn't. The problem for CBS is that the panel failed to take seriously whether the many flaws it found might, when taken together, be evidence of bias. After all, in certain legal contexts, bias that is "absolutely, unequivocally" denied can nonetheless be inferred from actions that depart from normal practices and procedures. Not incidentally, CBS maintains that the segment was just such an aberration from its tradition of journalistic excellence.

No comments: