Fat Steve's Blatherings

Monday, September 20, 2004

The Meaning of Rathergate, Part One: Appallingly Low Reportorial and Intellectual Standards

      By now, the CBS story on Bush and the Guard has fallen apart.  In fact, the New York Times is saying CBS will repudiate the story soon, perhaps sometime today (hat tip, Allah).  [Update: And they did repudiate on Sept. 20th].  What remains is to sum up the meaning of it all.  Why did they fall for what should have been an obvious fraud?  It would appear the answer is a great eagerness to 'get' Bush, an inability to reason, and lousy standards of evidence.

      Contemplate Rather's view of himself and CBS in this interview/story in The New York Observer [all quotes from this interview unless otherwise noted]:

"I certainly care about it [the memo scandal and his reputation]," he said. "To me, even people who aren’t inclined for one reason or another to like me know I’m a lifetime reporter trying to be independent and to report without fear or favor, to be an honest broker of information. On the times when I’ve failed, either because I didn’t ask enough of the right questions, or didn’t ask the right questions, I, and almost every other journalist, have taken a fair enough criticism for, in many people’s judgments, not asking the right questions, or not asking the right questions strong enough, long enough in the time preceding the war. And I think some of that criticism is justified. I do not except myself in that criticism."

Mr. Rather said that he was sure that the credibility of CBS News would hold up after the memo scandal had passed.

"I think over the long haul, this will be consistent with our history and our traditions and reputation," he said. "We took heat during the McCarthy time, during Vietnam, during civil rights, during Watergate. We haven’t always been right, but our record is damn good."

      Well, I hope that this isn't consistent with the history, tradition, and reputation of CBS, but I fear mightily that it is.  The first lesson to be learned here is that CBS had such ridiculous standards of evidence that they could be taken in by what should have been an obvious fraud.

      Why are they now going to fold (assuming they do)?  Apparently, it's because Lt. Col. Killian's former secretary (or maybe favorite pool typist?), Marion Carr Knox, has said that she didn't type those memos, and that they aren't genuine (not typed on the equipment they had then, don't use Air National Guard terms, etc.).  This was, of course, pointed out very early on, by bloggers.  Yet Rather didn't take it seriously.  Apparently, Knox is convincing to Rather because she's a Democrat who hates Bush and doesn't feel he's fit for office.

      Here's how Rather reacted to the same points when criticism first arose:

On Friday, Sept. 10, Mr. Rather said on the CBS Evening News that he believed that some of the criticism came from people who were "partisan political operatives," implying that right-wing elements have managed to turn the story into a referendum on the story itself—and thus on Mr. Rather, a longtime target of conservative critics.

Mr. Rather said that the focus on questions over the veracity of the memos was a smoke screen perpetrated by right-wing allies of the Bush administration.

"I think the public, even decent people who may be well-disposed toward President Bush, understand that powerful and extremely well-financed forces are concentrating on questions about the documents because they can’t deny the fundamental truth of the story," he said. "If you can’t deny the information, then attack and seek to destroy the credibility of the messenger, the bearer of the information. And in this case, it’s change the subject from the truth of the information to the truth of the documents.

"This is your basic fogging machine, which is set up to cloud the issue, to obscure the truth," he said.

      So, when the criticism came from Bush partisans, it was automatically dismissed.  Only Democrats can be trusted!  If you don't agree with someone's politics, you can ignore them!  In the logic trade, this is known ad hominem and argument from authority.

      Rather also displays appalling ignorance.  The crack about "partisans" and "well-financed" forces refers to bloggers!  At least Jonathan Klein was roughly accurate when he referred to us as guys in our living rooms, wearing pajamas.

      It's also worth noting that the sources for this story appear to have been Ben Barnes and Bill Burkett.  The two are openly partisan Democrats.  To rely on them is special pleading: Democratic partisans should be trusted, in contrast to Republican partisans who aren't honest.

      Other critics were apparently given slightly more credence, but not a lot more.  Contemplate the way Rather reacts to a specific question:

What about the Washington Post story of Sept. 14? The story pointed to discrepancies in military language, between the way Killian usually signed his letters and his signature on the memos CBS put on the air. And what about Mr. Bush’s address on one memo, "5000 Longmont #8, Houston," where he apparently no longer lived in 1972?

"Both of the allegations are wrong," he said. "I feel confident in saying that."

But when asked to offer a specific rebuttal to the observation about the address, Mr. Rather didn’t have one, saying only: "It’s our position, and I believe we demonstrated it …. The address doesn’t match the Bush service time frame—that’s their basic allegation? We think that’s wrong. We took a look at this, and we just think they’re wrong about it."

      No evidence is presented; no reason is given for believing Rather except "trust me."  Of course, if we automatically trusted Rather, we wouldn't have raised these questions in the first place.  And arguing that he should be trusted because he's trustworthy is circular logic.

      What reason was there to ever think the memos were genuine?  There doesn't seem to ever have been much:

Mr. Rather said that he and his longtime CBS producer, Mary Mapes, had investigated the story for nearly five years, finally convincing a source to give them the National Guard documents. He did not reveal the name of the source, but Mr. Rather said he was a man who had been reluctant to come forth with them because he’d been harassed by political operatives. "Whether one believes it or not, this person believed that he and his family had been harassed and even threatened," he said. "We were not able to confirm that, but his fear was that what had already been threats, intimidation, if he gave up the documents, could get worse—maybe a lot worse." . . .

Mr. Rather said that he and Ms. Mapes had heard about the National Guard memos as long ago as 1999.

"We eventually came in contact with somebody who said he knew about the documents, and it took a while to get in contact with the man who was supposed to have had the documents," he said. "It took a long time for us to create a reportorial relationship with him in which he trusted us, and at the same time we were checking him out to see if he was a trustworthy person."

While Mr. Rather and Ms. Mapes were able to glean the contents of the memos before they actually acquired them, and while they worked to convince the source to hand over the memos, he said they tried to verify the facts in them so they could be sure they were on the right trail.

"Within the last few months," he said, "we got a look at the documents, and we said we’d like to have a copy of the documents."

He said they met the source in a "remote location." "[The source] said they were copies of the documents, and he told us some of the history of where they came from and how they came to him," Mr. Rather said.

      Uh, Dan, if the source said that he was harassed, and he wasn't, then he would appear to be either crazy or a liar.  Either possibility tends to undercut the veracity of the documents, and the reliability of the source.  Why didn't this occur to you?

      Another appalling lapse comes here:

Mr. Rather asserted that the lack of denial was itself evidence of the essential truth of his findings. The questions raised by his reporting, he said, have remained unanswered by the Bush administration: Did Mr. Bush get preferential treatment for the Texas Air National Guard? Was then-Lieutenant Bush suspended for failing to perform up to Texas and Air Guard standards? Did then-Lieutenant Bush refuse a direct order from his military superior to take a required examination?

      In fact, back in 1999 Bush denied any attempt to get preferential treatment, and any knowledge of preferential treatment being given him.  He's said that he transferred to Alabama to work on a political campaign, and because he'd be doing non-flying duty, he skipped his physical.  And The Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post both say that Bush (through a spokesman) denied disobeying an order to get a physical when CBS interviewed the White House for this story.

      We now know that there were still doubts about the documents as late as the day the story ran.  What put confidence in them over the top?  The White House failed to call them frauds.  CBS sent them to the White House, and a few hours later interviewed White House communications director Dan Bartlett about them.  As Bartlett asked, (Post story) "How am I supposed to verify something that came from a dead man in three hours?"  Especially, how was he supposed to do this when the memos purported to be from the private files of Lt. Col. Killian, which Bush would never have seen?

      Ten seconds thought would have left them with a "Wait a minute!" reaction.  If the documents were genuine, Bush had received a direct order from Killian to get a physical.  If Bush denied that, then by implication he called the document a fraud, or at least implied that Killian was lying when he wrote the memo-that-was-supposed-to-be-an-order.  I can only conclude they didn't think.

      By the way, the only reasons for believing that Bush disobeyed an order for to get a physical, or that he was grounded for failing to meet standards, is precisely the memos.  Without them, there was only Barnes's old story about getting Bush into the guard through influence, a story that changed over time and was contradicted by Col. Staudt.

      There's no real point in further excavation in this swamp of illogic.  CBS wanted to get Bush.  That led them to believe the story was true without bothering to get evidence that would prove it.  They judged, correctly, that they didn't have a story without the memos, but didn't bother to do proper checks of the authenticity of the memos.  The only phrase that describes this is 'reckless disregard for the truth.'

      But what's even worse is the possibility that CBS is right when they claim their standards are as high as anyone's.  The Observer article is interesting in this regard, precisely for what is not in it.

      By the time the Observer interviewed Rather, the Washington Post had run a story noting many of the deficiencies in the documents.  Specifically, Marcel Matley is quoted in the article as saying that he did not authenticate the documents.  He only said the signature appeared genuine.  The Observer didn't ask Rather about that.  USA Today had revealed

it had independently obtained copies of the documents "from a person with knowledge of Texas Air National Guard operations" who declined to be named "for fear of retaliation."

It was unclear whether the same person supplied the documents to both media outlets. USA Today said it had obtained its copies of the CBS documents Wednesday night "soon after" the "60 Minutes" broadcast, as well as another two purported Killian memos that had not been made public.
[source is the Post story]

      The Observer didn't ask if CBS had the other two memos or not (they did), and if so why they hadn't used them.  The Observer didn't press Rather on the stylistic differences between the known genuine Guard documents and the memos.  That's especially bad because Rather told the Observer:

Mr. Rather said that it would require an exceptional amount of knowledge to craft a forgery—and not just the typographical kind. "You’d have to have an in-depth knowledge of Air Force manuals from 1971," he said. "You’d have to have Bush’s service record, you’d have to have the Air Force regulations from 1971, you’d have to know nearly all of the people involved directly at that time, including the squadron commander, who was Bush’s immediate superior, and his attitude at the time—you’d have to know all those things and weave all those things in."

      If the Observer reporter had been thinking, he'd have said 'But that's just the point!  The Post says that these memos don't show that kind of in-depth knowledge.  What they mostly show is the kind of thing you could find out by looking at the records Bush himself released.  And they appear to be full of errors.  In short, they look like inept forgeries.'

      Above all, the Observer reporter didn't bother to spend a few hours on the Web, reading what the internet critics had said.  If he had, he'd have known that there weren't equal numbers of experts on each side, as Rather claimed; that evidence contradicting or negating the testimony of CBS's experts had been posted; that CBS's 'verifications' of the documents with people like Hodges were apparently so vague as to be valueless; that Killian's widow and son denied Killian had kept any private files, or that he typed.  Instead, the interviewer doesn't even know what the brand name of IBM typewriters was: he calls the 'Selectric' the 'Selectra.'

      The only good thing I see in all this are that we now have striking evidence of just how badly the main stream media do their job.  That may lead people to stop trusting them.  And once they're brought to realize their weaknesses, the media may improve their performance.  But I don't expect that to happen anytime soon.

      Meanwhile, we can sum this up with one word: 'Pathetic.'



  • This is an excellent article, and it's nice to see that I'm not the only one having these thoughts.

    By Blogger Mike, at 6:41 AM  

  • "Note, that was just 19 minutes after the broadcast ended."

    It was actually 19 minutes after the broadcast started--just after the Barnes segment ended.

    By Blogger TankerKC, at 11:02 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home