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Rather Still Has Faith in Fake Memos

Does he not get it, or is he in denial?

CBS News anchor Dan Rather continues to stand by the content of the documents used in a now-discredited “60 Minutes Wednesday” segment on President Bush’s National Guard service, a panel investigating the botched story revealed this week. “Rather informed the panel that he still believes the content of the documents is true because ‘the facts are right on the money,’ and that no one had provided persuasive evidence that the documents were not authentic,” the panel’s 224-page report said. The veteran newsman, who will relinquish his anchoring duties in March, was spared by CBS executives, who this week ousted four other employees for their involvement in the September 8 broadcast. Two document examiners hired by CBS issued warnings about the purported National Guard memos in advance of the broadcast, but Rather’s producer, Mary Mapes, ignored the warnings, the panel reported. Despite telling viewers that the Bush memos used in the segment were “authentic,” Mapes had obtained the assurance of just one examiner, Marcel Matley, who vouched for only one signature. A fourth examiner said he couldn’t reach a definitive conclusion. Disregard for Truth Ultimately, the panel, led by former Atty. Gen. Dick Thornburgh and former Associated Press chief executive Lou Boccardi, was unable to conclude whether the documents were real or fake. Nevertheless, Rather relied on the documents for the September 8 segment to paint a picture of Bush as an irresponsible guardsman who refused to follow orders in the early 1970s. Even though document experts, typographers and former military officials have all come forward to showcase the problems with the purported Bush documents, Rather remains steadfast in his belief in the memos’ content. Asked by HUMAN EVENTS why Rather continues to stand by the documents, his publicist, Kim Akhtar, said, “We’re really not addressing any of this now. We’ve said what we’re going to say internally to the people at CBS and that’s it.” The panel said it was troubled by Rather’s half-hearted apology on September 20. Rather told the panel he delivered the apology–on the “CBS Evening News” and during a WCBS radio interview–only because news division chief Andy Heyward and a CBS public relations executive asked him to do so and he wanted to be a “team player.” Signs that Rather might have had a political agenda became clear well before the “60 Minutes Wednesday” show aired September 8. Although he wasn’t involved in the day-to-day reporting of the story, the panel’s report reveals instances where Rather’s belief in the story and faith in Mapes outweighed concerns about getting things correct. Four days before the broadcast, on September 4, Rather bragged to Heyward about a “big story” he was working on regarding Bush’s service in the Texas Air National Guard. Heyward told Rather to verify that the documents were real, and despite Rather’s assurance that he would, he didn’t follow through on the promise, according to the report. Heyward told the panel that Rather assured him two days later, on September 6, that the documents were “thoroughly vetted.” The report notes, “Heyward also told the panel that Rather said he had not ‘been involved in this much checking on a story since Watergate.'” Despite Heyward’s recollections, CBS chief executive Les Moonves pardoned Rather, noting that his decision to step down as anchor of the “CBS Evening News” was adequate punishment. History of Bias As Rather’s producer, Mapes was responsible for piecing together the story for the busy anchorman. Mapes was no stranger to the issue of Bush’s military service. She initially delved into the story in 1999, during Bush’s first presidential run. According to the panel, she laid out her vision in an April 27, 1999, e-mail that said, “in his military career, Bush was truly born on third base.” She suggested that “the way we ultimately do the story [could be] by establishing a pattern in this unit that just happened to have been a safe haven for children of privilege at the height of the Vietnam War.” When Mapes and Rather were unable to put together anything substantive, the story was shelved. Mapes’s interest resurfaced last year. In June 2004, the panel reported, she told a freelancer about her desire to have the story. “I am DEADLY serious about it,” Mapes said, according to the panel. “I have two other people working with me, looking at various aspects of the story, trying to find an opening. . . . The piece (if I get it) will run in early September. I need all the help I can get. Just tell me what you’ve got.” Then, in late August 2004, Mapes got what she thought was her break. A disgruntled former National Guardsman, Bill Burkett, himself an anti-Bush crusader, supplied her with documents–described by the panel as the “holy grail”–that she believed filled in holes about Bush’s military service. Those documents, of course, were the centerpiece of the September 8 segment, even though, according to the panel, Mapes had plenty of reasons to see there were problems. Mapes told the panel she “did her homework” on Burkett, who, in February 2004, had made disparaging remarks about Bush that were later discredited. In order to get the documents from Burkett, Mapes went so far as to satisfy his request that she put him in touch with Sen. John Kerry’s presidential campaign. Two high-profile Kerry officials, Joe Lockhart and Chad Clanton, spoke with Mapes prior to the September 8 segment, and Lockhart phoned Burkett at Mapes’s urging. ‘Too Excited to Sleep’ In the days before the segment was broadcast, Mapes described herself as “[t]oo excited, busy, stressed, etc. to sleep, I guess,” according to the panel’s report. Even when Mapes was presented with the concerns raised by the document examiners retained by CBS, specifically concerning the superscript “th”–which had the makings of a Microsoft Word character–she reportedly snapped, “Enough about the [expletive] ‘th.'” A day after the report aired, when criticism about the documents’ typeface was the focus, Mapes again dismissed the concerns. In a September 9 e-mail, Mapes “referred to document authentication as ‘sort of a black art’ and that ‘[e]xperts disagree on all kinds of [expletive] about typeface,'” according to the panel’s report. For the next 12 days, as other news organizations probed the documents, Mapes led CBS’s implausible defense of the story, according to the panel. It reported, “Mapes stridently believed in both the authenticity of the documents and their content, and, indeed, told the panel that she still does.” Unlike Rather, however, Mapes was fired last week. (HUMAN EVENTS was unable contact Mapes, but left a message with her husband, Mark Wrolstad, a Dallas Morning News reporter.) The conclusion that Rather and Mapes did not have a political agenda–“The panel does not find a basis to accuse those who investigated, produced, vetted or aired the segment of having a political bias”–leaves unanswered why the two continue to insist the memos’ content is accurate. Former ABC News correspondent Bob Zelnick, now chairman of the Boston University journalism department, told HUMAN EVENTS that what Rather and Mapes did was “borderline deception of the American people.” Media Research Center President L. Brent Bozell added, “This story was a political hatchet job, based on forged documents, and it was broadcast to the American public because of the liberal bias entrenched at CBS.”

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Written By

Mr. Bluey, a contributing editor to Human Events, is director of the Center for Media & Public Policy at The Heritage Foundation. He maintains a blog at RobertBluey.com.

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