Rathergate as it’s called , turned out to be the largest, most damaging journalism scandals since television began broadcasting news. Brian Williams may have pumped up his resume, but Dan Rather presented a report that was an out and out lie, and almost changed the results of a presidential election.

On September 8, 2004, less than two months before the 2004 Presidential Election, Dan Rather and his “60 Minutes II” producer  Mary Mapes presented a falsified story about George W. Bush going AWOL and receiving special treatment in the Texas Air Nation Guard. Rather’s entire production team was fired and Rather, the anchor who was the face of CBS, who replaced the exalted Walter Cronkite resigned from the nightly news. His career was in ruins.

Now, eleven years later the former CBS anchor is still out of touch with reality, claiming the report that destroyed his career was actually true.

A few months ago, a movie “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 was based on a book by Ms. Mapes about the incident.

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Last week The Hollywood Reporter  (THR) published an interview with the disgraced newsman. When asked about the movie he said, “It’s a terrific story, I think,” he says, “a narrative of how it happened that a group of very experienced reporters reported a true story and they all lost their jobs as a result.”

True? True????  Sorry Dan but I have more hairs on my bald head than there are people in the world who believe that story was true.

The Rathergate scandal was one of the first major stories discovered by the blogging community. Before he went crazy, threw all of his supporters under a bus, and declared himself a born-again liberal,  Charles Johnson published a story on his site, “Little Green Footballs,” showing that the documents which was supposedly written in 1973 saying Bush went AWOL (known as the Killian documents), 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), Rather says the story is true?

In his interview with THR Rather said:

“Then we come back in the fall [Sept. 8, 2004] with a story that was true,” he says emphatically. “We reported a true story. We didn’t do it perfectly. We made some mistakes of getting to the truth. But that didn’t change the truth of what we reported.” The key points, he maintains, are that Bush got into the Texas Air National Guard — and therefore stayed out of the Vietnam War — through the help of powerful friends and family, and that he subsequently disappeared for a chunk of the time he was supposed to be in service. “Those were the bedrock facts of the story we reported. In the process of putting this together, those partisan political forces and ideological forces who found this a very inconvenient story — they couldn’t attack the hard-rock facts, so they looked, ‘Where is the story weak?’ So they concentrated on the documents and they succeeded. They overwhelmed CBS — they overwhelmed us who reported it — by making the focus not on the hard-rock truth of the story, but rather the process by which we arrived at that truth.” Consequently, he says, “They changed the conversation” and, to his dismay, “The corporate entity caved.”

The only hard-rocks are between Rather’s ears.  First of all it was not to CBS’s advantage to have the face of CBS News be outed as a liar.  The only pressure the network bowed to was to get to the truth. Therefore they 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 charged with finding the truth about President Bush’s National Guard service, and the Rather report.

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 (AKA 60 Minutes II)  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.
  • Preparing news stories that sought to support the Segment, instead of providing accurate and balanced coverage of a raging controversy.

Besides all of the above, the report was rock-sold.

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.

Having worked for a cable network, I can tell you that networks rarely make mass firings (by name) and follow up with a public mea culpa.  The lawyers usually don’t approve because it opens them up for law suits.  The fact that CBS went ahead with the firings, Moonves made a public apology, and they released the independent panel report to the public is a clear indication that even at the liberal CBS News, they knew the Rather story was 100% bogus.

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 the man who earned CBS News its reputation,   Edward R. Murrow is turning over in his grave.

Rathergate report by Jeffrey Dunetz