The Ten Worst Media Distortions of Campaign 2004

Dan Rather's Forgery Fiasco

On September 8, Dan Rather led off his CBS Evening News by touting four exclusively-obtained “memos” purportedly showing that George W. Bush’s squadron commander, Jerry Killian, was fed up with the young Air National Guard Lieutenant’s failure to get a physical exam. The same documents also starred on 60 Minutes that night, as did a major Democratic partisan, Ben Barnes, who claimed he was “sorry” he helped Bush get a slot in the National Guard, a suspicious reversal of his previous accounts.

TextBox1CBS’s new “evidence” triggered stories in every major news outlet, including the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, USA Today, ABC, NBC, FNC and CNN. But by Friday, September 10, many of those same news organizations quoted independent experts doubting the authenticity of the memos, dated 1972 and 1973, since they looked computer-generated, not typed, citing a range of formatting issues. Then Killian’s widow told ABC Radio that her late husband did not type or keep extensive records, and Killian’s son told the Associated Press he doubted his father wrote those “memos.”



But on the September 10 Evening News, Rather offered a six-minute response that repeated his indictment of Bush, ignored most of the substantive charges (including any mention of Killian’s family) and cast CBS’s critics as partisan and unreliable: “Today, on the Internet and elsewhere, some people, including many who are partisan political operatives, concentrated not on the key questions of the overall story, but on the documents that were part of the support of the story.” So it didn’t matter that his “memos” were a fraud?

Rather and his network spent the next week pointing fingers at others, falsely suggesting that CBS was promoting “truth” in the face of “partisan political ideological forces.” Rather told the New York Observer’s Joe Hagan: “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 added, “This is your basic fogging machine, which is set up to cloud the issue, to obscure the truth.”

In an interview with the Washington Post’s Howard Kurtz, Rather boasted about standing up to right-wing meanies: “I don’t back down. I don’t cave when the pressure gets too great from these partisan political ideological forces.”

Even as he continued to impugn Bush’s National Guard service, the CBS anchor portrayed himself as the victim: “People who are so passionately partisan politically or ideologically committed basically say, ‘Because he won’t report it our way, we’re going to hang something bad around his neck and choke him with it, check him out of existence if we can, if not make him feel great pain.’ They know that I’m fiercely independent and that’s what drives them up a wall,” Rather told USA Today’s Peter Johnson and Jim Drinkard.

Josh Howard, the Executive Producer of the Wednesday edition of 60 Minutes, even tried to blame Bush himself, telling the Los Angeles Times: “If we had gotten back from the White House any kind of red flag, raised eyebrow, anything... we would have gone back to square one.” But, Howard told the Times, “the White House said they were authentic, and that carried a lot of weight with us.”

That’s incorrect. The White House, which only saw the “memos” a few hours before 60 Minutes went on the air, did not confirm the authenticity of CBS’s fraud memos. That job was botched by CBS itself. 

On September 20, twelve days after their original report aired, Rather revealed that CBS got the “memos” from a disgruntled ex-National Guardsman, Bill Burkett, who had a long grudge against Bush. But Rather only admitted that CBS could not authenticate the documents, telling the Chicago Tribune, “Do I think they’re forged? No.”

brown092804Some in the liberal media refused to condemn CBS for sacrificing its professional ethics in pursuit of a political agenda. CNN anchor Aaron Brown was the most condescending, sniffing that those who linked the memo scandal with liberal bias lack brainpower. “Some partisans...will see willful deception on the part of CBS,” Brown lectured on the September 20 NewsNight. “Smarter and more reasoned heads know better.”

On the Bright Side: ABC Investigated CBS’s Document Experts

Even as CBS News was claiming that its independent document experts had vouched for the four forged memos at the center of their anti-Bush story, ABC’s World News Tonight revealed that two of the experts CBS consulted thought the documents were suspicious. On September 14, ABC’s Brian Ross reported that “two experts hired by CBS News say the network ignored concerns they raised prior to the broadcast about the disputed National Guard records.” 

Ross explained how Emily Will, a certified document examiner, “says she saw problems right away with the one document CBS hired her to check in the days before the broadcast.” Will recalled how right before the Wednesday, September 8, broadcast she predicted: “I told them that all the questions I was asking them at that time, which was Tuesday night, they were going to be asked by hundreds of other document examiners on Thursday if they ran that story.” Then Ross noted how “a second document examiner hired by CBS News, Linda James of Plano, Texas, told ABC News she too had concerns about the documents prior to the broadcast.”

But to viewers, Ross pointed out, “CBS made no mention that any expert disputed the authenticity of the documents.”