Rathergate: 100 proof fraud

The Daily Beast’s John Fiallo reports that Dan Rather returns to CBS News today 18 years after his involuntary departure. Fiallo writes (emphasis added):

The former CBS News anchor Dan Rather will make a brief return to the network Sunday, appearing in a live interview 18 years after his controversial exit. Rather, 92, is slated to be profiled on CBS News Sunday Morning through an interview with correspondent Lee Cowan, the network announced. The segment will, in part, promote the soon-to-be released documentary Rather, which chronicles the legendary newsman’s “rise to prominence, his sudden and dramatic public downfall, and his redemption and re-emergence as a voice of reason to a new generation,” the doc’s producers wrote in a statement. Rather’s falling out with CBS began with his 2004 60 Minutes II report about George W. Bush’s National Guard record that relied on documents CBS failed to authenticate—something the then-president skewered the network for. The incident shattered Rather’s reputation, despite the documents never being proven to be forgeries. The controversy, which was dubbed “Rathergate,” was dramatized in the 2015 film Truth. Rather’s return to CBS will air at 9 a.m. EST on Sunday.

The documents “were never proven to be forgeries” in roughly the same sense that Alger Hiss was never proven to be a Communist spy. Fiallo to the contrary notwithstanding, the proof is overwhelming. Indeed, there is no proof to support the authenticity of the documents. None. Zero. Nada.

Back in 2015, when the movie Truth was released, I saw that critics took the film as a historical account. Just ten years after the fact, Hollywood found it easy to rewrite history. Prompted by the reception of the film, John and I wrote the Weekly Standard story “Rather shameful.” It was published in the Standard’s October 12, 2015 issue.

In the story we cite the Thornburgh-Boccardi Report commissioned by CBS News, which CBS seems to have removed from the Internet. CBS seems also to have removed the fraudulent Rathergate story from the Internet, but the editor’s note we cite below can be viewed here (“A report issued by an independent panel 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”). The CBS News story on the firing of employees responsible for the story (employees other than Rather) is posted here.

Andrew Heyward was president of CBS News at the time of Rathergate. He hasn’t spoken much about the scandal for public consumption, but he talked about the film to the New York Times in connection with the release of Truth in 2015. Heyward told the Times that the film “takes people responsible for the worst embarrassment in the history of CBS News, and what was at the time a grievous blow to the credibility of a proud news organization, and turns them into martyrs and heroes. Only Hollywood could come up with that.” Let that serve as the epigraph for John’s and my 2015 Weekly Standard article.

“Proof” is relevant evidence. Evidence is relevant if it has any tendency to make a fact more or less probable than it would be without the evidence and the fact is of consequence in determining the issue. Query how many items of evidence you can spot supporting the fraudulence of the Rathergate documents.

* * * * *

When CBS’s 60 Minutes Wednesday broadcast its lead story—reported by Dan Rather and produced by Mary Mapes—on the evening of September 8, 2004, it was given the anodyne title “For the Record,” as though it constituted little more than a disinterested historical footnote. In reality, the story was a bold fabrication about President George W. Bush’s long-ago service in the Texas National Guard, intended to damage him in his campaign for reelection against John Kerry.

Within hours of the broadcast, after CBS News posted online PDF copies of four memos highlighted in the segment, the story began to fall apart. The memos looked phony. By the following evening, CBS was in crisis mode trying to deal with the mess. As other news outlets followed up, the story continued to disintegrate. CBS nevertheless hung with it for nearly two weeks. The New York Times provided its own form of encouragement to CBS. In the words of the classic headline over its story of September 15, “Memos on Bush are fake but accurate, typist says.” Four Times reporters collaborated on the story.

On September 20, despite the Times’s best efforts, Rather conceded that his reliance on the documents in issue was “a mistake.” He apologized “personally and directly” for the error. The fiasco came to be known as Rathergate. In hindsight we can see that the Times got it half right; the story was fake, but it was also inaccurate.

The spin offered by the Times seems to have provided the idea behind the new film Truth, based on Mapes’s Rather-gate memoir, Truth and Duty. Starring Robert Redford as Rather and Cate Blanchett as Mapes, the film premiered to favorable reviews at the Toronto International Film Festival on September 12. The film opens in New York and Los Angeles on October 16. Unfortunately, the reviewers seem only vaguely aware of the material that CBS News, 11 years ago, twisted into “For the Record.” Students of the Hiss and Rosenberg cases have learned that the left simply does not relent in its efforts to rewrite history. Before the revisionist history peddled in Truth takes hold, let us review “For the Record” for the record, as it were.

Accepting the Democratic presidential nomination in the summer of 2004, John Kerry had saluted and reported for duty, harking back to his service in Vietnam. The Democrats and their allies were primed to make disparagement of President Bush’s service in the Texas Air National Guard (TexANG) in the early 1970s one of the leading themes of their campaign. Through the kind of media magic that so often benefits the Democrats, CBS’s 60 Minutes Wednesday program had scheduled a segment attacking President Bush’s service for late September, but rushed it to air on the evening of September 8. The Kerry campaign was ready; it promptly unfurled a public relations blitz geared to “For the Record.” Dubbed Operation Fortunate Son (alluding to the Creedence Clearwater Revival song about the evasion of service in Vietnam by the privileged), the Kerry campaign operation anticipated and then sought to maximize the impact of the CBS report. As Matthew Continetti reported in these pages at the time (“Unfortunate Democrats,” September 27, 2004), the wreck of “For the Record” made for a troubled liftoff of Operation Fortunate Son.

“For the Record” opened with a reference to the attack earlier that year on Kerry’s service by the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth who had served with him in Vietnam. Rather noted that President Bush had been criticized for his military service as well, both for avoiding Vietnam and for shirking his duties. In May 1968, Bush had joined the TexANG, where he was trained to fly the F-102 interceptor jet, no easy task. But CBS had come to bury Bush, not to praise him.

Ben Barnes, the Democratic former speaker of the Texas house and lieutenant governor, was interviewed by Rather. At the time of the interview, Barnes was, perhaps coincidentally, vice chairman of Kerry’s national finance committee and a top fundraiser for Kerry. Barnes implied that he had pulled strings to get Bush into the TexANG. Was this a case of preferential treatment? In its first half the segment answered the question in the affirmative. In its second half the segment drew on several documents that CBS posted online that evening. These documents portrayed Bush’s military service in an unflattering light, suggesting he had defied an order of his commanding officer (Lieutenant Colonel Jerry Killian) to report for his annual physical and that Killian had been pressured to “sugarcoat” his evaluation of Lieutenant Bush.

Online commenters almost immediately took issue with the authenticity of the documents. Writing under the pseudonym Buckhead on the Free Republic site, Atlanta attorney Harry MacDougald first alleged that the documents appeared to be fabrications created by a modern word processor, not typewritten documents from the old files of Killian as advertised. Many others followed up, and indeed the documents quickly proved to be word-processed forgeries. CBS was unable to identify a single witness to authenticate them. Rather’s source—Bill Burkett, a virulent Bush critic and former member of the Texas Army National Guard—finally confessed to the CBS anchor that he had lied about where he obtained the documents.

Coincident with Rather’s apology CBS commissioned an internal investigation. Former attorney general Richard Thornburgh and former AP head Louis Boccardi conducted the inquest. They interviewed witnesses and reviewed evidence. In early January 2005 they submitted their Report of the Independent Review Panel and posted it online, where it is still accessible and, as the reviews of Truth suggest, still required reading.

The documents on which the story was based supposedly came from the “personal file” of Jerry Killian, Bush’s commander in the TexANG, who had been dead for 20 years. But where did CBS News get them? Mapes testified that she and her team had been given six documents by Bill Burkett, but where had Burkett obtained them?

The report notes that Burkett gave three explanations, whose implausibility increased in each successive version. He told one intermediary that the documents mysteriously materialized in the mail. He then told Mapes that the documents were provided to him by one George Conn, but that Conn would never admit to being the source. Mapes made virtually no attempt to contact Conn or to confirm this story, which Burkett later admitted was false. That was the state of Mapes’s knowledge when the story aired on September 8.

In the crisis following the airing of the 60 Minutes Wednesday story, Burkett changed his story again, stating that he had actually received them indirectly from a “Lucy Ramirez.” We love Lucy, but she’s never been sighted, either before or since. In her 2005 memoir, Mapes described the Ramirez piece of the story as a “tale of bovine intrigue” because Burkett told her he picked up the documents as instructed by Ramirez from “a dark-skinned man” at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo. “As a fittingly bizarre last touch,” Mapes wrote, “Burkett told our group that he had hidden the papers in his venison locker, close to 100 miles from his home.”

And the tale is bovine, in a tall tale sort of way. Mapes still pretends to believe Burkett. Drawing on the sense God gave them, the Thornburgh-Boccardi panel did not. Killian’s family, as it happens, said such files of his as Burkett purported to pass along never existed. The Thornburgh-Boccardi report drily observes: “It does not appear, based on information available to the Panel, that [Mrs. Killian] was asked whether her husband had personal files, used a typewriter or had a secretary.”

The Thornburgh-Boccardi report also notes that Mapes had learned in the course of her reporting that no influence was used to get President Bush into the TexANG. There was no line of aspiring pilots waiting to fly the difficult and dangerous F-102 in 1968. No pull was needed to secure Bush a spot to train as a pilot.

Mapes had been pursuing the story of Bush’s National Guard service since 1999, longer than Captain Ahab pursued Moby Dick. In 1999 Mapes had interviewed witnesses with firsthand knowledge of the TexANG’s needs for personnel, including TexANG Brigadier General Walter “Buck” Staudt and Major General Bobby W. Hodges. They “told her that, contrary to Barnes’ statement, no influence was used to get Bush into the TexANG and that Barnes himself” was uncertain anyone had “gotten [Bush] in.” Mapes’s 1999 notes reflected Hodges having told her that the group was “hurting for pilots.” Rather himself had been told in 1999 that there were several open pilot slots when Bush enlisted. Yet “For the Record” peddled the false narrative that was to be advertised in the Operation Fortunate Son ad campaign—namely, that Bush had “jumped the line.”

The Rathergate memos had obviously been created recently on Microsoft Word rather than three decades earlier on a typewriter. But their content also revealed them to be fake. In a memo dated August 18, 1973, bearing the colorful subject “CYA,” Killian had supposedly documented Staudt pressuring Hodges and Hodges pressuring Killian to “sugarcoat” the evaluation of Bush. Staudt, however, had retired on March 1, 1972. Staudt was not on the scene or in a position to pressure anyone in the TexANG to do anything.

CBS portrayed Bush joining the TexANG to evade service in Vietnam, yet Mapes had been told by Killian’s son that Bush volunteered to go to Vietnam and was turned down because he didn’t have enough flying time. The Thornburgh-Boccardi report also quotes one of Killian’s authentic evaluations of Bush: “Lt. Bush is an exceptional fighter interceptor pilot and officer.” Contrary to the tenor of the fabricated memos, this is what Killian really thought of Bush.

The Thornburgh-Boccardi report states that the panel could not conclude with “absolute certainty” that the documents were fabricated. The only ground for uncertainty presented in the report, however, is metaphysical. The report includes the analysis of forensic document examiner Peter Tytell, a highly qualified expert on the issues raised by the typographic characteristics of the documents. Tytell examined the documents procured from Burkett and concluded that they were produced on a computer using a Times New Roman font.

According to Tytell, Times New Roman was designed in 1931 for the Times of London and was available mainly on commercial typesetting machines until the desktop publishing revolution brought it to personal computers in the 1980s. Tytell concluded it was not available on a typewriter in the early 1970s and that the Burkett documents must have been produced on a computer. The Thornburgh-Boccardi panel “met with Tytell and found his analysis sound in terms of why he believed that the documents were not authentic.” If the documents are not authentic, they are frauds.

The Thornburgh-Boccardi report establishes beyond a reasonable doubt not only that the documents were fake, but that the essence of “For the Record” was false. A scandal of the first order, “For the Record” was an attempt by a prominent organ of the mainstream media to influence the outcome of a presidential election with a false and fraudulent story just two months before Election Day.

If you look up “For the Record” online at the CBS News site now, you will find it prefaced with this statement: “A report issued by an independent panel on January 10, 2005, concluded that CBS News failed to follow basic journalistic principles in the preparation and reporting of this September 8, 2004 broadcast.” But that’s not the half of it. The Thornburgh-Boccardi report shows this confession of journalistic malpractice to be a considerable understatement.

Revisionist history commenced soon after the release of the Thornburgh-Boccardi report in 2005. Both Mapes and Rather wrote memoirs telling the Rathergate story from their perspectives. Despite Rather’s on-air apology, he and Mapes never backed down. She published Truth and Duty in late 2005, in the aftermath of the Thornburgh–Boccardi report. In her memoir Mapes stands by the story. She stands by the documents. She also proudly displays her political animus. Mapes bizarrely credits Karl Rove with masterminding “the Republican attack against the [60 Minutes Wednesday] story.” But those of us in the middle of the (independent) attack on the story on September 9 and the days following never heard from anyone in the Bush White House or from officials in the Republican party about defects in the CBS report. Of course, given her claim that the documents were authentic, Mapes had to absolve Rove of fabricating and planting them—“not that I believe Rove isn’t capable of that kind of dirty trick,” she writes.

In his 2012 memoir Rather Outspoken, Rather also stands by the story and the fabricated documents. He sees himself as a victim rather than a perpetrator. He seethes with hatred for Republicans and conservatives. He pleads guilty only to “putting a true story on the air.” According to Rather, “There is a through-line, a long and slimy filament that connects the ‘murder’ of Vince Foster to Swift Boat Veterans for Truth and to the discrediting of the Killian memos.” That “slimy filament” is “a dirty thread” that “stretches all the way .  .  . to the birther movement.” To say the least, that’s quite a stretch.

The Thornburgh-Boccardi report found that “certain actions” could support charges that political motivations prompted CBS News to report and air “For the Record,” yet the report ultimately refrained from concluding that political bias was responsible for its faults and errors. The Thornburgh-Boccardi panel, however, did not have to contend with the Mapes and Rather memoirs. The memoirs demonstrate intense antipathy toward Republicans. They reiterate the falsehoods and absurdities of “For the Record.” And they now have the best of Hollywood to lend support to their efforts.

In late November 2004, Rather announced that he would step down as anchor and managing editor of the CBS Evening News effective the following March, on the 24th anniversary of the night he succeeded Walter Cronkite. He was to continue to work full-time at CBS News as a correspondent for 60 Minutes. He made the announcement in advance of the Thornburgh-Boccardi report and was never disciplined in connection with the story. CBS subsequently announced his departure from the network on June 20, 2006, before his contract expired.

Every good story needs a hero and a villain. Mapes is the hero of her own story, both the story told in the film and the memoir on which it is based. The film must get the old hate on for President Bush, of course, and it reserves some scorn for the blogs that helped expose her derelictions, but it serves up corporate CBS/Viacom as the villain. CBS/Viacom supposedly commissioned the Thornburgh-Boccardi investigation and fired Mapes in deference to the political powers that be (or were) for base commercial reasons. CBS terminated Mapes’s employment on January 10, 2005, following the submission of the Thornburgh-Boccardi report to management. Mapes quotes CBS News president Andrew Heyward telling her concisely: “[T]he report is out. It’s very bad. You’re being terminated.”

A reasonable person would conclude that Mapes was fired for appalling professional misconduct, which disgraced and betrayed her colleagues (including Rather) and the company for which she worked. If Mapes is the hero of Truth, we should note that Truth is a production of Mythology Entertainment. Truth—and the truth—are indeed out there somewhere.

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