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Rathergate, turned out to be one of the largest, most damaging journalism scandals since television began broadcasting news. In 2004 Dan Rather and his “60 Minutes II” producer  Mary Mapes tried to influence the Presidential election with a falsified story about George W. Bush going AWOL and receiving special treatment in theTexas Air Nation Guard.  Soon after the report ran and the documents were called into question Rather’s entire production team was fired and Rather, the anchor who replace Walter Cronkite resigned from the nightly news his career in ruins.  Now a new movie entitled “Truth,” starring Cate Blanchett as producer Mary Mapes and Robert Redford as Dan Rather tries to revise history by creating a fantasy that Rather and Mapes  were heroes who were wrongly accused. The movie is based on a book by Ms. Mapes about the incident.

As CBS told Variety:

It’s astounding how little truth there is in “Truth.” There are, in fact, too many distortions, evasions and baseless conspiracy theories to enumerate them all. The film tries to turn gross errors of journalism and judgment into acts of heroism and martyrdom. That’s a disservice not just to the public but to journalists across the world who go out every day and do everything within their power, sometimes at great risk to themselves, to get the story right.

The Rathergate scandal was a major story first discovered by the blogging community.  Before he went a bit “mad,” Charles Johnson published a story on his site, “Little Green Footballs,” showing that the memo which was supposedly written in 1973 saying Bush went AWOL, was typed in a font that wasn’t available until almost 30 years later.

He published the GIF below showing the old font vs. the one that was used:
Killian_memos_MSWord_animated (1)

 

Despite these and other demonstrations of the story’s lack of truth and Rather’s own apology, the former CBS Anchor now says he was wronged and the story is true

Soon after the Rather/Mape report’s veracity was challenged CBS News named former Pennsylvania governor and U.S. Attorney General Dick Thornburgh and retired Associated Press president chief executive Louis D. Boccardi to an independent panel to probe a story about President Bush’s National Guard service.

The report which was issued on Jan. 10, 2005 concluded that CBS News failed to follow basic journalistic principles in the preparation and reporting of the Sept. 8, 2004 broadcast about President Bush’s service in the National Guard. According to the report (embedded below) the most serious defects in the reporting and production of the Bush segment were:

  • The failure to obtain clear authentication of any of the Killian documents from any document examiner;
  • The false statement in the September 8 Segment that an expert had authenticated the Killian documents when all he had done was authenticate one signature from one document used in the Segment;
  • The failure of 60 Minutes Wednesday management to scrutinize the publicly available, and at times controversial, background of the source of the documents, retired Texas Army National Guard Lieutenant Colonel Bill Burkett;
  • The failure to find and interview the individual who was understood at the outset to be Lieutenant Colonel Burkett’s source of the Killian documents, and thus to establish the chain of custody;
  • The failure to establish a basis for the statement in the Segment that the documents “were taken from Colonel Killian’s personal files”;
  • The failure to develop adequate corroboration to support the statements in the Killian documents and to carefully compare the Killian documents to official TexANG records, which would have identified, at a minimum, notable inconsistencies in content and format;
  • The failure to interview a range of former National Guardsmen who served with Lieutenant Colonel Killian and who had different perspectives about the documents;
  • The misleading impression conveyed in the Segment that Lieutenant Strong had authenticated the content of the documents when he did not have the personal knowledge to do so;
  • The failure to have a vetting process capable of dealing effectively with the production speed, significance and sensitivity of the Segment; and
  • The telephone call prior to the Segment’s airing by the producer of the Segment to a senior campaign official of Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry — a clear conflict of interest — that created the appearance of a political bias.

That was before the story was broadcast, after the broadcast, as questions were raised about the Bush segment, CBS News compounded the problem by covering up.  Some of the worst examples of the cover up include:

  • The strident defense of the September 8 Segment by CBS News without adequately probing whether any of the questions raised had merit;
  • Allowing many of the same individuals who produced and vetted the by-then controversial September 8 Segment to also produce the follow-up news reports defending the Segment;
  • The inaccurate press statements issued by CBS News after the broadcast of the Segment that the source of the documents was “unimpeachable” and that experts had vouched for their authenticity;
  • The misleading stories defending the Segment that aired on the CBS Evening News after September 8 despite strong and multiple indications of serious flaws;
  • The efforts by 60 Minutes Wednesday to find additional document examiners who would vouch for the authenticity of the documents instead of identifying the best examiners available regardless of whether they would support this position; and
  • Preparing news stories that sought to support the Segment, instead of providing accurate and balanced coverage of a raging controversy.

After the report was issued CBS announced that many involved in the fraud were asked to resign:

Asked to resign were Senior Vice President Betsy West, who supervised CBS News primetime programs; 60 Minutes Wednesday Executive Producer Josh Howard; and Howard’s deputy, Senior Broadcast Producer Mary Murphy. The producer of the piece, Mary Mapes, was terminated.

 

“We deeply regret the disservice this flawed 60 Minutes Wednesday report did to the American public, which has a right to count on CBS News for fairness and accuracy,” said CBS President Leslie Moonves.

 

The panel said a “myopic zeal” to be the first news organization to broadcast a groundbreaking story about Mr. Bush’s National Guard service was a key factor in explaining why CBS News had produced a story that was neither fair nor accurate and did not meet the organization’s internal standards.

 

Mr. Rather can claim innocence all he wants and leftist Robert Redford can support him with a fantastical movie making him a hero.  But the truth is Rather’s fake story should have never hit the airwaves, it single-handedly destroyed the reputation of CBS News, and they have never recovered. Somewhere Edward R. Murrow is turning over in his grave.

Rathergate report by Jeffrey Dunetz

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