Monday, January 10, 2005

RatherGate Panel Falls Short

Despite raising some pointed questions about the reliability of CBS and Dan Rather during the September 8 Sixty Minutes segment and its aftermath, the independent panel charged with investigating the issue has failed to draw the obvious conclusions on the crucial issues:

The Authenticity of the Documents:

The Panel has not been able to conclude with absolute certainty whether the Killian documents are authentic or forgeries. However, the Panel has identified a number of issues that raise serious questions about the authenticity of the documents and their content. With better reporting, these questions should have been raised before the September 8 Segment aired. [From the Executive Summary]
But, as I pointed out earlier, absolute certainty is not the standard by which investigative journalists judge the quality of their conclusions. In Section F of the Executive Summary (pp 18-19) the panel details several pieces of evidence that were more than sufficient to draw the conclusion that the documents were forgeries. This evidence is examined in greater detail in pages 133-150 of the body of the report.

The Panel observes at the outset, however, that what was at first asserted by Mapes prior to the broadcast of the Segment to be a good meshing without any apparent qualification has now been transformed into an argument that there is nothing in the official Bush records that would rule out the authenticity of the Killian documents. This is similar to statements made by Matley, one of the document examiners, before the airing of the Segment that he could not see anything in the Killian documents that would rule out the possibility that they were authentic. While such an argument may have legitimacy in an advocacy proceeding, the Panel does not find it to be a sufficient standard for journalism, which should not stand on a “nothing to rule it out” foundation. [p 133]
I acknowledge that the point being made here is a good one, but the subsequent analysis is too timid. There are too many details to cite here, but this should serve as a representative example:
The Panel concludes that while certain of the Killian documents mesh well with the official Bush records in terms of content, there are several significant inconsistencies that undercut the meshing notion. At a minimum, the inconsistencies should have prevented an unqualified assertion as of September 8 that the Killian documents fit precisely into the pattern of the official Bush records.
The frequent use of the formula "at a minimum" indicates that the panel wants to suggest greater deviance than it is willing to actually state. I suspect that this formula is being used to mollify the critics of CBS without actually agreeing with them. That is not good enough.

Political Bias:
The Panel is aware that some have ascribed political motivations to 60 Minutes Wednesday’s decision to air the September 8 Segment just two months before the presidential election, while others further found political bias in the program itself. The Panel reviewed this issue and found certain actions that could support such charges. However, the Panel cannot conclude that a political agenda at 60 Minutes Wednesday drove either the timing of the airing of the Segment or its content.

Given that the Panel does not believe that political motivations drove the September 8 Segment, questions likely will be raised as to why these massive breakdowns occurred on this story at an organization like CBS News with its heritage and stated commitment to the highest standards of journalism. The Panel heard from many that the Rather/Mapes team was a formidable force at 60 Minutes Wednesday. Great trust was placed in Mapes, a highly respected producer who had just produced a widely acclaimed segment on the Abu Ghraib prison abuses, and vast deference was given to Rather, the “face” of CBS News. These factors, along with the “crash” of the production, contributed greatly to the failures of the September 8 Segment and the Aftermath.
Two words: "smoke screen". The second paragraph does not show any evidence that the panel understands the question that it is attempting to answer: how the failure of respected journalists in light of the highly charged political context of the segment can be explained other than by the a political agenda. The answer seems to be that they failed because they were highly respected and influential, which is nonsense. Elsewhere in the Executive Summary and the main body, the failure is characterized as "myopic zeal to be the first news organization to broadcast what was believed to be a new story about President Bush’s TexANG service" which at least makes more sense, but still does not support the conclusion that political bias was not a factor.

Hugh Hewitt rightly points out that this second deficiency of the panel's report obscures (or, in his words, "whitewashes") the crucial question that the report should have answered: to what extent can we trust CBS (and I would suggest the mainstream media at large) given their utter failure to correct or even admit their bias?
This is an abdication by the Panel of the central question. The report ends with this absurd conclusion:

"Inevitably, some inside and outside CBS News will fault a few, if not many, of the Panel's findings and conclusions. We will have been too tough, too easy, intrusive, timid, unfair, naïve, gullible or more. This is not a simple story, but we are confident that we have told it fully and fairly."

"Too tough?" With a punt on the central question of the controversy? CBS got what it wanted --a slap on the wrist, an apparent wrap-up with the dismissal of some underlings. The culture of undisclosed bias gets a pass, and the obvious corruption of the "news" process in the service of the Democratic Party is classified as "unknowable" because Dan Rather and Mary Mapes said they weren't partisans? What a joke, as transparent a whitewash as the documents were forgeries.

To their credit, the Los Angeles Times partly acknowledges that this report is insufficient. Though it focuses on the firing of Mary Mapes, while Dan Rather is allowed to retire with dignity, at least the Times seems aware that there is more to this story.

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