The First Rathergate: The CBS anchor’s precarious relationship with the truth

It looks like Rather did it before. Why is this important? Because it shaped perceptions that are false.


21 thoughts on “The First Rathergate: The CBS anchor’s precarious relationship with the truth”

  1. The right is leading with its chin on this story. Whether these documents are genuine or not is irrelavent. There is plenty of ther supporting evidence that George E. Bush received preferential treatment to avoid serving in Viet Nam, was absent from duty without explanation, and failed to meet the terms of his national guard enrollment.

    These “forgery” accusations once again draw our attention to the fact that while John Kerry was in Viet Nam, as a volunteer for duty, taking fire, saving the lives of his comrades, and earning commendation for his bravery and valor, GW Bush spent most of his national guard time in Alabama trying not to fall off a bar stool.

    Bush did not even do his full service with the Texas Air National Guard, absenting himself to work on the Alabama senate campaign of Winton “Red” Blount. Whether he was actually AWOL during this stint is unclear. But it is clear that not only did Bush slack off on his National Guard service, but he also slacked off from his campaign work.

    This little-noted interview with Blount’s nephew Murph Archibald, which appeared on National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered on March 30, 2004, gives a devastating insight into what it was like to have to suffer through Bush in that period.

    “All Things Considered (8:00 PM ET) – NPR

    March 30, 2004 Tuesday

    This campaign season, there have been questions about whether George W. Bush fulfilled his obligations to the National Guard as a young lieutenant in the early 1970s. For weeks, reporters scoured Alabama in search of pilots or anyone who might have remembered seeing Mr. Bush at the time he was serving in the National Guard there. There is one place in Alabama where Mr. Bush was present nearly every day: the headquarters in Montgomery of US Senate candidate Winton “Red” Blount. President Bush has always said that working for Blount was the reason he transferred to the Alabama Air National Guard. NPR’s Wade Goodwyn has this report about Mr. Bush’s time on that campaign.

    WADE GOODWYN reporting:

    In 1972, Baba Groom was a smart, funny young woman smack-dab in the middle of an exciting US Senate campaign. Groom was Republican Red Blount’s scheduler, and in that job, she was the hub in the campaign wheel. Ask her about the handsome young man from Texas, and she remembers him 32 years later like it was yesterday.

    Ms. BABA GROOM (Former Campaign Worker): He would wear khaki trousers and some old jacket. He was always ready to go out on the road. On the phone, you could hear his accent. It was a Texas accent. But he just melded with everybody.

    GOODWYN: The candidate Mr. Bush was working for, Red Blount, had gotten rich in Alabama in the construction business. Prominent Southern Republicans were something of a rare breed in those days. Blount’s support of the party led him to be appointed Richard Nixon’s postmaster general. In Washington, Blount became friends and tennis partners with Mr. Bush’s father, then Congressman Bush. That was how 26-year-old Lieutenant Bush came to Montgomery, at his father’s urging . . . It was Mr. Bush’s job to organize the Republican county chairpersons in the 67 Alabama counties. Back in 1972 in the Deep South, many rural counties didn’t have much in the way of official Republican Party apparatus. But throughout Alabama, there were Republicans and Democrats who wanted to help Red Blount. It was the young Texan’s job to find out what each county leader needed in the way of campaign supplies and get those supplies to them. Groom says this job helped Mr. Bush understand how even in a statewide Senate campaign, politics are local.

    . . . Murph Archibald is Red Blount’s nephew by marriage, and in 1972, he was coming off a 15-month tour in Vietnam in the infantry. Archibald says that in a campaign full of dedicated workers, Mr. Bush was not one of them.

    Mr. MURPH ARCHIBALD (Nephew of Red Blount): Well, I was coming in early in the morning and leaving in mid-evenings. Ordinarily, George would come in around noon; he would ordinarily leave around 5:30 or 6:00 in the evening.

    GOODWYN: Archibald says that two months before the election, in September of ’72, Red Blount’s campaign manager came to him and asked that he quietly take over Mr. Bush’s job because the campaign materials were not getting out to the counties.

    Mr. ARCHIBALD: George certainly didn’t seem to have any concerns about my taking over this work with the campaign workers there. My overall impression was that he didn’t seem as interested in the campaign as the other people who were working at the state headquarters.

    GOODWYN: Murph Archibald says that at first, he didn’t know that Mr. Bush was serving in the Air National Guard. After he found out from somebody else, Archibald attempted to talk to Mr. Bush about it. The president was a lieutenant and Archibald had been a lieutenant, too; he figured they had something to talk about.

    Mr. ARCHIBALD: George didn’t have any interest at all in talking about the military. In fact, when I broached the subject with him, he simply changed the subject. He wasn’t unpleasant about it, but he just changed the subject and wouldn’t talk about it.

    GOODWYN: Far from Texas and Washington, DC, Mr. Bush enjoyed his freedom. He dated a beautiful young woman working on the campaign. He went out in the evenings and had a good time. In fact, he left the house he rented in such disrepair–with damage to the walls and a chandelier destroyed–that the Montgomery family who owned it still grumble about the unpaid repair bill. Archibald says Mr. Bush would come into the office and, in a friendly way, offer up stories about the drinking he’d done the night before, kind of as a conversation starter.

    Mr. ARCHIBALD: People have different ways of starting the days in any office. They’re going to talk about their kids, they’re going to talk about football, they’re going to talk about the weather. And this was simply his opening gambit; he would start talking about that he had been out late the night before drinking.

    GOODWYN: Archibald says the frequency with which Mr. Bush discussed the subject was off-putting to him.

    Mr. ARCHIBALD: I mean, at that time, I was 28; George would have been 25 or 26. And I thought it was really unusual that someone in their mid-20s would initiate conversations, particularly in the context of something as serious as a US senatorial campaign, by talking about their drinking the night before. I thought it unusual and, frankly, inappropriate.

    GOODWYN: According to Archibald, Mr. Bush would also sometimes tell stories about his days at Yale in New Haven, and how whenever he got pulled over for erratic driving, he was let go after the officers discovered he was the grandson of a Connecticut US senator. Archibald, a middle-class Alabama boy–who, by the way, is now a registered Democrat–didn’t like that story.

    Mr. ARCHIBALD: He told us whenever he was stopped, as soon as the law enforcement found out that he was the grandson of Prescott Bush, they would let him go. And he would always laugh about that. “

  2. Frankly, it’s irrelevant. He’s had four years on the job as commander-in-chief. Vote for or against him on that record. People in the military are.

  3. Everyone knows the stories of George Bush in his younger years. He drank quite a bit, probably did coke, and it’s naive to think that his father’s position and family name didn’t earn him any privileges whatsoever, whether it was the National Guard, his business ventures, Yale or his political career.
    We all know know that with money and fame come influence.

    To his credit, W’s admitted some of this, and it’s fair to say that these issues are only relevant sofar as he can be honest about them now.

    Both sides need to drop the Vietnam issue. Kerry served and put his life on the line. Bush did some service but not to the degree Kerry did. He’s cleaned up his act since then.

    As far as Dan Rather’s concerned, they had an expert who verified the authenticity of the documents in question. In every court trial, for every “expert” there’s another expert with an opposing opinion. If CBS executed reasonable means to verify their story, this is a non-issue. If they acted impetuously and didn’t, then they’re guilty of shoddy journalism, whether the docs are real or not, and Rather should admit this.

  4. The Rather piece isn’t about Bush or Kerry. It is about the historical record on Viet Nam. If a major media venue is this cavalier about the historical record, it will take many more years to understand that record properly, unless of course, credibility is extinguished. In that case it needs to be dismissed.

  5. The real story here is the not about the documents, but about the many instances of divine intervention in the life of George Bush. Of course the liberal press, opponent of all that is right and good, fails to mention any of these obvious miracles. For your convenience, I detail a few of them here.

    Bush signs up for the Texas ANG. He, with his lackluster qualifications, leaps to the top of a waiting list of 150 other men. (The fellow who says he actually got him the spot can’t be trusted because he’s a Democrat, so we know automatically that that isn’t true.) Since there was no family influence involved — Bush himself testifies to that — we can only conclude that Bush entered the Texas ANG through divine intervention.

    He does well in flight training, but inexplicably stops flying and refuses to take his required flight physical. His country having now invested a million dollars in his flight training, he decides . . . . to help out on a campaign in Alabama. (It is unclear whether he did anything useful on the campaign, but during his stay in Alabama it is clear that liquor store revenues increased; never let it never be said that George W. Bush did not help the economy.) Given the divine gift of invisibility, he regularly performs his National Guard duty, though no one ever sees him.

    Yet other miracles occur such that he somehow manages satisfactory performance while never doing that one thing he was trained for. His status is miraculously changed from “pilot” to “executive support officer” even though he has none of the required experience for that slot. No matter what problem Bush faced, no matter the requirement, divine intervention ensured that he was always able to skate by. Subsequent to his ANG service he is miraculously admitted to Harvard Business School. After school a couple of his businesses almost went under but they were miraculously resurrected, again, through divine help.

    I am outraged that this obvious string of miracles has been neglected by the liberal press. Being haters of religion, they falsely try to portray all of this as the result of human actions — as if the President of the United States would ever have benefitted from family influence! But we know that the hand of the divine was in all of this. And similar miracles continue to this day.

  6. If the object of scorn is CBS and Dan Rather, then I agree that they are guilty of shoddy journalism. This is another black eye for network news organizations and another ratings uptick for Cable outlets like Fox News. I’m surprised we didn’t see Britt Hume, Fred Barnes and Morton Kondracke dancing in a blizzard of confetti last night.

    Rent the movie “Broken Glass” sometime about the New Republic magazine writer Richard Glass, who nearly brought down that magazine after it published over 27 news and human interest stories which Glass later admitted were completely fabricated.

  7. I followed the Glass story but I didn’t know a movie was made about it. A lot of the established media organs have taken hits in the last few year. Janet Cooke at the Washington Post, Jason Blair(?) at the NYT, now Rather (although he is sticking to his guns — but did you notice “authentic” has morphed into “accurate” in the latest release), and others.

    With Kerry and Rather in particular however, it looks like the popular assumptions about Viet Nam vets committing all sorts of atrocities are suspect at best, perhaps even outright lies. This too needs investigation before the principles die since it will be important to historians.

    I have the sense that with the current Rather episode, we are watching the demise of giant who doesn’t quite understand that the world has changed.

  8. Note 6:

    On the Chris Matthews’ Hardball program aired September 15th, 2004, a document examiner was interviewed who had been consulted by CBS prior to the airing of the 60 Minutes II program featuring the alleged National Guard documents. Her last name was Ellis. She was allowed by CBS to see only 2 of the total of 6 documents in the set. Ellis was very clear in her statement, she stated that on the Tuesday before the show, she pointed out to CBS certain “red flags” in the documents which would prevent her from authenticating them. CBS ignored her comments and told her they were going ahead anyway. Ellis warned CBS that if they used the documents on Wednesday, the same questions that Ellis raised would be raised by other document examiners on Thursday.

    Hardball usually makes transcripts available. You should be able to confirm my summary online.

    There are rumors that these documents were known to the DNC and the Kerry staff prior to their transmittal to CBS. I have to withhold judgment on this unless more facts are made available, but at a minimum CBS owes the public full disclosure of its alleged sources. There is no ethical duty to protect a person who has perpetrated a fraud.

  9. It all goes to show the culture of opinion rules the day. The relativists have won. Juan Williams and other liberals try to advance the thesis that the authenticity of the documents is not important because they reflect the basic reality. We argue back and forth based on nothing more than mere suspicion and our own belief or what we want to believe. The same with all of the other political issues of the day. Unless we as Christians can arrive at an ethical foundation from which to address controversial issues, we are no better or more accurate than the secularists and amoralists. That is to say, if all we argue on is our own opinion, that is all it can be. Facts are notoriously mutable when looked at from different assumptions. From most of the conversations on this blog recently, there appears to be no common foundation on which to stand. Am I wrong?

  10. Before we get carried away with liberal press bashing don’t forget that two months ago Sean Hannity of Fox News aired doctored photos, altered to make it look as if John Kerry and Jane Fonda were standing side-by-side 30 years ago protesting the Viet Nam war. Where was the hue and cry over that falsehood?

  11. Kerry’s statements about atrocities committed in Vietnam have been taken out of contest and distorted. Kerry was not lying nor was he trying to slander his fellow soldiers, but only to describe the hellish, senseless slaughter that the Vietnam War had become.

    While the overwhelming majority of American servicemen in Vietnam did not commit atrocities, it is undeniable that atrocities by Americans did occur. The Vietnam War was a brutal, conflict. The Viet Cong certainly did not hesitate to execute their Vietnamese political enemies when they had the chance and kill Americans anyway they could. Fighting a deadly guerilla style war and taking heavy casualties, it is not surprising that American soldiers may have succumbed to the pressure to dispense with the Marquis of Queensbury rules and respond with equal ruthlessness and ferocity.

    The atrocities committed in the Vietnamese village of My lai by US soldiers are well documented, men of Charlie Company, 11th Brigade. had killed over 300 unarmed villagers before a US Army scout helicopter landed between the attacking American troops and the remaining Vietnamese who were alive. The pilot, Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson, Jr. Hugh confronted the leaders of the troops and told them he would open fire on them if they continued their attack on civilians.

    Michael Herr’s book “Dispatches”, considered one of the best books on what it was like to be a soldier in the Vietnam war, contains photos of Viet Cong heads and ears severed by US troops, and describes the burning of villages and brutalizing of civilians. .

    In 2003 the Toledo Blade newspaper published a series about the activities of an American unit in Vietnam called Tiger force. “
    October 22, 2003, “ Elite unit savaged civilians in Vietnam”

    Known as Tiger Force, the platoon was created by a U.S. Army engaged in a new kind of war – one defined by ambushes, booby traps, and a nearly invisible enemy…But the platoon’s mission did not go as planned, with some soldiers breaking the rules of war. Women and children were intentionally blown up in underground bunkers. Elderly farmers were shot as they toiled in the fields. Prisoners were tortured and executed – their ears and scalps severed for souvenirs. One soldier kicked out the teeth of executed civilians for their gold fillings.”

  12. Well, actually Kerry does indeed appear to have lied, but that is not my main point. Rather, it appears
    that the sources we believed were telling the truth about Viet Nam were telling us something else.

    All this means that the received historical record is suspect. This does not prove what really happened
    in Viet Nam, only that sources once considered credible increasingly appear fraudulent. The entire
    record needs to be reexamined. Recounting more news stories doesn’t answer my objection.

    Michael, yes, your points are well taken. You have to fight for truth though, like this.

  13. Michael, of course truth matters.

    Unfortunately, we humans are limited as to how we may ascertain whether something is true or not.
    We can either use our own five senses and logic or those of someone elses (e.g., eyewitness accounts or “expert”
    opinion). In this case, the only people who know whether the documents are forged or not with utter
    certainty are the people who created the documents. The rest of us must determine through a complex set
    of facts whether the docs were forged or not, and even then we can only state it with a certain “likelihood”.
    I don’t think this is relativism.

    Dan Rather probably does not have knowledge of fonts and typefaces, so he probably asked some experts
    on this subject whether the documents were authentic. How many should he have asked? Five? Ten? A hundred?
    Even then there will be disagreement. A responsible journalist would have verified this with a reasonable
    number of sources (more than one) which would have simply narrowed the margin of disagreement a bit.
    Even then, one must consider whether there is an agenda on the part of the experts involved.

  14. Michael writes: “The relativists have won. Juan Williams and other liberals try to advance the thesis that the authenticity of the documents is not important because they reflect the basic reality.”

    For the sake of argument, let’s agree that the interest of liberals in inadequately vetted documents that nonetheless are completely consistent with everything that we know about George Bush signifies the triumph of relativism.

    If so, then what is the significance of conservative support for a war promoted on false information concerning the threat, the needed resources, and the likely outcome?

    Conservatives are straining at the gnat of Rather’s memo, while swallowing the camel of the Iraq war.

  15. James, Michael, in the case of the forged documents, there is no expert vouching for their authenticity, which makes determining the truth much easier. All it takes in this case is listening to the arguments and making the call.

    The alarming justification Rather used last evening (the story is still true even if the documents are fraudulent) is more worrisome because it jettisons the acceptable standards by which a journalist decides whether or not to post a story.

  16. Fr. Hans writes: ” . . . it jettisons the acceptable standards by which a journalist decides whether or not to post a story.”

    The problem here is that the “journalism” is primarily a liberal activity these days. Thus, people such as Rather are supposed to operate within certain accepted standards, whereas the vast army of right-wing pundits, talk show hosts, news anchors, etc., operate under a completely different set of standards. When you watch Dan Rather, you expect him to provide a fair and balanced and accurate presentation of the facts. When you watch Sean Hannity or Rush Limbaugh you expect them to serve as the part of the great right-wing propaganda machine.

    For example, when Rush “Oxycodone” Limbaugh broke the story about Vince Foster’s “murder” in an apartment owned by Hilary Clinton, he mentioned that it was a “rumor,” based on a “fax.” This gives him the ability to break the story while covering himself with the statement that it was a “rumor.” Once the story is broken, the right-wing echo chamber swings into action and propagates it 24/7, with demands for an “investigation,” and so on.

    Strangely enough, when things like this happen no one in the right bemoans the loss of journalistic standards.

  17. Anne Coulter and Rush Limbaugh are the Pravda of the right. I think because they are labeled “commentators” and not “journalists”, they’re expected to be biased (and thus inaccurate and one-sided in their presentation of “truth”).

    Too bad they’re given such credibility…

  18. Jim, is this a tacit admission that the critiques of Rather are correct? Or is it an argument that Rather is really a closeted member of the vast right wing conspiracy?

  19. Fr. Hans writes: “Jim, is this a tacit admission that the critiques of Rather are correct? Or is it an argument that Rather is really a closeted member of the vast right wing conspiracy?”

    From a journalistic point of view, I don’t think that presenting the memos as a news story is appropriate without a more thorough vetting accompanied by information on the source of the memos. In the case of these memos, the provenance is a critical factor. That said, the case against Bush — disobeying an order to take the physical, failure to perform to standards, and so on — that can be pretty well nailed down through the existing record and through the testimony of those who knew of him and of the situation back then. In other words, I think that memos of uncertain provenance only serve to confuse the situation.

    As far as the vast right-wing conspiracy, I wouldn’t really call it that, except in the same sense that the New York Yankees and their fans are a vast baseball conspiracy. In other words, the right wing journals, foundations, politicians, candidates, pundits, commentators, talk show hosts, blogs, magazines, councils, associations, political action committes, organizations, contributors, etc., all cooperate very openly and above-board. There’s nothing secret or conspiratorial about it at all. I think most of the cooperation is informal and understood, not planned

    But in some cases, there is a high degree of coordination, as seen in the Swift Boat Veterans group. Seemingly out of nowhere, an organization springs to life, financing is available, an ad campaign is created, right-wing media outlets hype the ad, a book is written, interviews are scheduled, and so on. All of this happens within days, and the fact that their allegations contradicted official military records and eyewitness accounts hardly slowed things down at all. Not surprisingly, it turns out that many of the participants in this organization have long-time ties to the Bush family or to their friends.

    At times we do see cracks in the wall. Bush’s inept foreign policy and economic decisions have turned many Republicans against him. So it’s not like these guys always walk in lockstep. But the degree of coordination is far beyond anything that the Democrats do. I’m not even sure that the Democrats are capable of that.

    One of the effects of the right wing approach to media is that the distinction between journalist and partisan pundit has just about disappeared. For example, you can watch a news story on Fox, and then the host will break into commentary. So news people also act as pundits, and pundits present news. Pundits also act as the conduits for new news stories.

    Even the “discussions” tend to be stacked. You’ll have Sean Hannity and a couple of right wing attack dogs matched with some journalist from public radio. Sean and the attack dogs do their thing, and the poor journalist tries to act like a journalist and thus comes off sounding mealy-mouthed, wimpy, and wishy-washy by comparison. There is Hannity and Colmes, but if Colmes died would anyone notice?

    So back to Rather. I think that his running with the story of the memos was not in keeping with good journalistic practice. But this is a standard which many in the the right wing ignore even as they insist that others adhere to it.

  20. I should have put an emoticon next to my comment.

    Anyway, I glad to get rid of the fiction of an objective media.

    The standards that should be applied (and both the left and right have failed at times)are generally the same ones applied to evidence in a courtroom. And, when frauds are perpetrated, the news organization should come clean as soon as they discover it.

    What makes the Rather case different is not that they were taken in by a fraud, but that they persist in using the fradulent documents as if they were a legitimate source. A responsible organization on the left or right would have corrected this error much earlier. I really can’t see, say, Tom Brokaw or Brit Hume following the route Rather has taken. The real story here is not Rather’s charges against Bush, but Rather’s irresponsible journalism. He has arrogantly compromised himself and the entire CBS operation. It may prove fatal for him.

  21. As a student of history, I always have to laugh at the fiction of objective media. Even the idea of such is a creation of the 2nd half of the 20th century largely as the result of the early TV news programs that had to appeal to a mass audience. Since they could not afford to alienate anyone, the put on a veneer of non-partisan, objective seekers of the truth.

    For a long time, I have felt that the public is better served by honest partisanship than by dishonest objectivity. Note the word, honest. Unfortunately, most of the partisan media today is not honest, intellectually or otherwise. The down-side of a partisan media is the fact that so few people, minds turned into mush by our union controlled, governement propaganda mills called public schools, have much capacity to think. Right or left, if it sounds good, do it. Never mind the cost or the consequences or the morality of it.

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