CBS Screwed the Pooch & the Truth

The hardest thing any journalist has to do is stand up before his or her peers and admit they were wrong.

We’re trained to spot frauds. Our instincts should shield us from con-artists and sources with an agenda. Our natural skepticism should kick in.

Unfortunately, the passion that comes with chasing a good story dulls those senses. That’s when we let our guard down and forget that a hot story can turn and burn you.

CBS News thought it had a hot story two weeks ago when it reported discovery of memos the network felt finally proved a young George W. Bush received favorable treatment to land a coveted spot in the Texas Air National Guard – thereby avoiding more dangerous service in Vietnam – and received special attention again by disobeying orders and getting away with it.

Sure looked like a great story; a hot story – one that, on the surface, appeared to prove years of speculation, rumor and innuendo about the President’s spotty tenure in the military.

But, in its rush to get the story on the air, CBS ignored the warnings of document experts who raised questions about the authenticity of the memos. For one thing, they looked like they were written with modern computer word processing software – something not available in the early 1970s. Even worse, the network did not have the originals, only photocopies faxed to them from a Kinkos in Texas by a former national guardsman with a hard-on for Bush.

Within hours of the broadcast, questions about the memos surfaced on a pro-Bush bulletin board and on partisan “Blogs,” those daily Internet political commentaries produced by anyone with a mouth and a modem. Before long CBS News, long thought by conservatives to be a bunch of liberal hate-mongers out to get Bush, became the story.

The network, and anchor Dan Rather, tried at first to stand fast: Claiming the memos were properly “vetted” and verified by document experts. Then their own experts raised doubts and said the network ignored their concerns. CBS went back to their source – retired national guardsman Bill Burkett – who admitted he lied about where he obtained the memos. On Monday, 12 days after the broadcast of the original story, CBS finally admitted they could not verify the memos and apologized for their screw up.

“I want to say, personally and directly, I’m sorry,” an unusually humbled Rather said Monday on the “CBS Evening News.”

The story is far from over. Questions remain over the network’s involvement with the campaign of Democratic Presidential contender John Kerry. Why did CBS News producer Mary Maples call Kerry advisor Joe Lockhart before their story aired and tell him that Burkett, their now discredited source, “had been helpful” and now wanted to talk to the Kerry campaign?

CBS says it will appoint an independent panel to investigate the matter and insiders expect some firings. Whatever happened, this debacle gives those who doubt the news media and its intentions more ammo to bolster their claims of partisanship and hidden agendas.

In the end, truth remains the real loser. The memos may or may not be fake (even the experts can’t agree or say for sure). CBS may or may not have been driven by a partisan desire to get President Bush. Those who raised questions about the authenticity of the memos may have been driven more by partisan motives than a real desire for truth.

We still don’t know for sure just what George W. Bush did or did not do during his “service” in the Texas Air National Guard. And thanks to idiots who run CBS News, we probably never will.