Fat Steve's Blatherings

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

The Meaning of Rathergate, part four: Where's Cromwell when you need him?

      Well, after months of waiting, the CBS Independent Panel Investigating the Rathergate fiasco has issued its report.

      I must confess, I haven't finished it yet.  I've spent much of the day downloading the evidence that the Panel published in the evil PDF format.  But I did make it through the Executive Summary, Les Moonves's statement, and "Designated Victim" Mary Mapes's defense of her acts, as well as other web commentators.

      Certainly the single most insightful comment I've seen so far was on evangelicaloutpost.com, a site I don't think I ever heard of before. (hat tip: Hugh Hewitt)  Joe Carter quotes the panel's report:
More than a few of the staff members interviewed by the Panel likened this breakdown in the production of the September 8 Segment to a “perfect storm,” in which a confluence of factors came together and led to the failures.

      Carter then nails the problem with this idea:
Let’s look at the elements that went into the creation of this “perfect storm”:

1. The speed with which the story was produced.
2. The deference given to an experienced producer.
3. The producer’s association with Dan Rather.
4. A belief in the truth of the subject matter.

Is the Panel claiming that this “confluence of factors” is a rare event? Are we expected to believe that most stories are produced at a leisurely pace with an inexperienced producer that has no association with Rather and who doesn’t believe in the veracity of the material?

      No,that's not it.


      That's where CBS really went wrong.  It never occured to CBS that the truth was something they weren't sure of, something they needed to establish.  Mapes and Co. were certain they knew the truth, but couldn't prove it.  Enter Barnes and Burkett, both of whom were working against Bush's re-election.  Both of them had baggage that suggested they would lie to take down Bush.  Both of them were believed, instantly.

      That conviction is also why they fiasco went on for thirteen days, with CBS issuing one dishonest statement after another in defense of their piece, as the Panel Report shows.  In fact, CBS news doesn't seem to have any idea of what truth is.  They seemed to think that if they just talked fast and loudly enough, and ignored the evidence that the memos were phony, they'd prevail, with memos that were "fake but accurate."

      Mary Mapes inadvertantly confirms that this was a "routine disaster" in her response to the Panel Report:
I am shocked by the vitriolic scape-goating in Les Moonves's statement. I am very concerned that his actions are motivated by corporate and political considerations — ratings rather than journalism. Mr. Moonves's response to the review panel's report and the panel's assessment of the evidence it developed in its investigation combine not only to condemn me, but to put all investigative reporting in the CBS tradition at risk.

Much has been made about the fact that these documents are photocopies and therefore cannot be trusted, but decades of investigative reporting have relied on just such copies of memos, documents and notes. In vetting these documents, we did not have ink to analyze, original signatures to compare, or paper to date. We did have context and corroboration and believed, as many journalists have before and after our story, that authenticity is not limited to original documents. Photocopies are often a basis for verified stories.

Before the Bush/Guard story aired, the newly found documents that supported it were thoroughly examined and corroborated. The contents of the new documents mesh perfectly, in large ways and small, with all previously known records. [my emphasis throughout]

      So now we see what's truly appalling about the Rathergate fiasco.  They did what they always did.  It's just that this time, they got caught.


      Update, January 17th: Slate Magazine's Jack Shafer has a great piece about Rathergate and the report, (hat tip: Howard Kurtz), making the same point I do about a routine catastrophe:
Although the review pretends that the Bush service story was an anomaly, a temporary unhinging of CBS News' high journalistic standards, anybody who has worked with investigative reporters will recognize the fact-shaving, source-buttering, and ethics-skirting practiced by Mapes and her colleagues. . . .

Mapes was taken in by a hoax, it seems, and the auteur of CNN's Operation Tailwind program was convinced by unreliable sources. No conflicting evidence, no matter how strong, was enough to shake the faith of either reporter. Tragically, neither seems to have learned in their careers that doubt, not certainty, is often an investigative reporter's best friend.

T. S. M. B.D.!


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