The Mapes miasma

I am warming up to watch the documentary Rather, celebrating the career of the disgraced former CBS News anchor. It is to be aired this coming Wednesday on Netflix. Apparently having access to a screener for media critics, the Star Tribune’s Neal Justin found the documentary to be wanting (“when it comes to the stumbles, like walking off the set when a tennis match went long, the legendary broadcaster goes missing”).

Speaking of “stumbles,” we have the matter of Rathergate. However, “stumble” doesn’t quite capture it. “Disgrace,” “disaster,” and “fraud” are more like it.

Award-winning CBS News producer Mary Mapes was the real author of Rathergate. Dan Rather was the mouthpiece. Rather magnified the underlying fraud into an epic moment by standing behind the story for 12 days. Rather thought he could tamp down the scandal on his reassuring say-so. Like the clueless elders in the Bob Dylan song, he did not understand that “the order [was] rapidly fadin'” or that “the times they [were] a changin’.”

In November 2005 Mary Mapes told her story in a memoir published by St. Martin’s Press. I must be one of the few citizens of the United States to have read it. Let us take a look back with the review I wrote for this Weekly Standard online column at the time in slightly revised form.

* * * * *

Mary Mapes is back. With her memoir, Truth and Duty: The Press, The President, and the Privilege of Power, the former CBS News producer is trying to write a second act for her career.

Mapes was the producer of the CBS 60 Minutes II segment on President Bush’s service in the Texas Air National Guard that aired on September 8, 2004. According to the segment, President Bush had received preferential treatment in being admitted to the Guard, and once in, had served dishonorably. The segment predicated the latter theme on four 1972 and 1973 documents from the “personal file” of Lieutenant Colonel Jerry Killian, then-Lt. Bush’s commanding officer in the Texas Air National Guard. CBS had obtained the documents from a confidential source. In the online version of the story, CBS posted PDF versions of the four documents.

The authenticity of the documents was originally attacked on the website Free Republic by an anonymous poster (since revealed to be Atlanta attorney Harry MacDougald) late on the evening of September 8. Throughout the following day, blogs including Power Line explored the apparent phoniness of the documents by posting information received from readers and fellow bloggers. At Little Green Footballs, blogger Charles Johnson announced by mid-morning that he had created an exact copy of one of the four CBS documents on Microsoft Word default settings, with the font set on Times New Roman; he declared the documents forgeries. (Mapes says this replication “proved nothing, other than the fact that computers can replicate all kinds of things.”)

The 60 Minutes II segment unraveled quickly. Mainstream media outlets followed up on the issues raised by the blogs. For 12 days CBS stood behind the broadcast. On September 20, CBS apologized for the story. It also appointed former Attorney General Richard Thornburgh and former AP head Louis Boccardi to an “independent review panel” to investigate the affair.

Surveying the chain of events which led to CBS abandoning her story, Mapes now proclaims that rabid right-wing blogs have joined forces with Fox News, talk radio, and “magazines like The Weekly Standard” to form “a well coordinated attack machine out there in the media world, a monster that waits in the woods for an opening and then overpowers its victim.” It hardly needs to be said that Mapes sees herself–not President Bush–as the victim.

In January 2005, the independent review panel issued its report and CBS promptly fired Mapes. In Truth and Duty Mapes attacks the Thornburgh-Boccardi report and proudly stands behind her 60 Minutes II segment. She reiterates her disparagement of President Bush’s service in the Texas Air National Guard and supports the authenticity of the documents in question based on her “meshing” analysis, claiming that they neatly fit with the known facts of Bush’s service. (They don’t; more on that later.)

The reviews for Mapes have been surprisingly positive (see Kenneth Bunting in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Ed Bark in the Dallas Morning News, and Paul Farhi in the Washington Post). Even the mixed notices, such as Jonathan Alter’s essay in the New York Times Book Review, find Mapes’s book worthy of serious consideration. For his part, Alter deems Mapes’s counterattack on the “cyber-lynch mob” among “the most illuminating parts of the book.”

What is certainly illuminating is the degree to which Truth and Duty makes plain the level of malice Mapes has for Bush. Although she offers herself as an impartial journalist searching for truth, her tract seethes with Bush hatred. Mapes suggests that Bush’s “success in skewing the public perception of his military service was a prelude to his success in shaping public opinion around the reasons for the war in Iraq, the treatment of detainees, the need for a tax cut, and every political battle he has fought and won in his White House years.” She refers to “the Bush campaign’s aggressive pattern of sliming anyone and everyone who raised questions about the president.” She describes Karl Rove as Bush’s “über-adviser” and bizarrely credits him with masterminding “the Republican attack against the [60 Minutes II] story.” Given her claims of the documents’ authenticity, she absolves Rove of fabricating and planting the documents–“not that I believe Rove isn’t capable of that kind of dirty trick.”

It is a shame that those reviewers favorable to Mapes’s book appear not to have read the Thornburgh-Boccardi report, which is full of information that discredits the segment in its entirety, belies Mapes’s book, and establishes far beyond reasonable doubt that the documents on which Mapes staked her career are fraudulent. So, before Mapes’s revisionism takes hold, let’s look at the evidence of the documents’ fraudulence in three areas explored by the report, all bearing on authentication of the documents.

(1) The source of the documents: There is no evidence that the documents came from Lieutenant Colonel Killian, as Mapes claims. The documents purport to derive from his “personal file.” Killian died in 1984; his family denies that the documents emanated from him or them. The lack of any evidence to substantiate the provenance of the documents in Lieutenant Colonel Killian’s “personal file” by itself highlights the absurdity of Mapes’s argument for their authenticity.

We now know that Mapes’s source for the documents was one Bill Burkett. How did Burkett come by the documents? The Thornburgh-Boccardi report notes that Burkett gave three explanations as to how the documents came into his possession, stories whose implausibility increases in each succeeding version. He first told Mapes that the documents mysteriously materialized in the mail. (Mapes omits this first explanation in her book.) 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.

Such was Burkett’s story at the time of the broadcast; so apparently Mapes believed it. After the broadcast, when CBS set out to establish the authenticity of the documents, Burkett told his third and final version of the story. Here is Mapes’s account:

Burkett told us that he had received a phone call in early March of 2004 from an unidentified man, who said that a woman named Lucy Ramirez wanted to speak with him. Burkett said he was told to call her at a Houston Holiday Inn that night between 7:00 and 10:00 P.M. and that he was given a specific room number to ask for. Burkett said that Ramirez told him she was a go-between, a person who was supposed to deliver a package to him.

Burkett told us that Ramirez made him promise that he would handle the package he received from her very specifically. He agreed to copy the documents inside, then burn the original papers he had received, which were also copies, not originals. He was also to burn the envelope they had come in. Burkett said that he agreed to this, assuming that Lucy or whoever she was wanted to destroy any DNA evidence that might be gleaned from the papers or the package they had come in.

Burkett said that Ramirez asked him if and when he would be in Houston and he told her he would be at the Houston livestock show within a couple of weeks, where he and his wife, Nicki, showed and sold Simmenthal cattle. It was an annual showcase for the breed and a good way to advertise the bull semen . . . they and other ranchers sold to make a living. Burkett told Ramirez what he would be working the front information booth at the show, which was held in a large arena.

Burkett said that on his first day working the booth he was handed the papers by a dark-skinned man. He said the man approached him, asked his name, and handed him a legal envelope. We were able to confirm with the cattle association that Burkett had indeed worked the front booth on that date. A coworker of his at the cattle show said that, as Burkett told us, he had asked her to hold a legal envelope for him while a man handed him the papers.

As a fittingly bizarre last touch, Burkett told our group that he had hidden the papers in his venison locker, close to one hundred miles from his home. He boasted that he’d driven so fast to get to our meeting that the papers were still cold from his freezer when he handed them to me.

Mapes calls Burkett’s third story–which she also purports to believe–a “tale of bovine intrigue.” But would any reasonable person believe that the documents procured from Burkett are what they purport to be based on this “tale”? Here is Mapes’s credo:

As I sat listening to Burkett’s scenario spill out, I realized how truly ridiculous this sounded from our vantage in New York. But in Texas, one of the world capitals of “shit happens,” a place where bull semen is worth its weight in gold (and the bizarre long ago became the mundane), I believed it was quite possible that Bill Burkett was finally telling the truth, the whole weird truth, and nothing but the truth. By God, in Texas, anything could happen.

“Quite possible” is a rather low threshold of credibility.

(2) The font/typestyle of the documents: The Thornburgh-Boccardi report provides the analysis of forensic document examiner and typewriter expert Peter Tytell, both in the text and at greater length in the report’s Appendix 4. Tytell is a diplomate of the American Board of Forensic Documents Examiners and a highly qualified expert on the issues raised by the typographic characteristics of the documents. Tytell examined the official Bush Guard documents as well as the CBS documents procured from Burkett and concluded that the Burkett documents were produced on a computer in Times New Roman typestyle.

According to Tytell, Times New Roman was designed in 1931 for the Times of London and was only available on typesetting and other non-tabletop machines until the desktop publishing revolution in the 1980s. Tytell concluded that the Times New Roman typestyle 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 report states: “The [Thornburgh-Boccardi] Panel met with Tytell and found his analysis sound in terms of why he believed that the documents are not authentic.” If the documents are not authentic, they are frauds.

How does Mary Mapes address Peter Tytell’s analysis? Tytell’s name does not appear in her book. Mapes does, however, dispute the proposition that the Burkett documents are in Times New Roman font (she suggests that they are in Press Roman). She writes: “There are comparisons of some of the letters in the memos with the Times New Roman version of the same letter at” No such comparison appears on her site. When I called her in advance of this review, the editor of Mapes’s book (Elizabeth Kieffer) told me the comparison had been removed from Mapes’s site as the result of a technical glitch and said she would fax it to me if she could find it. No fax ever arrived.

Readers interested in this issue should also be aware of Joseph Newcomer’s definitive analysis of the typographic issues. Newcomer reports that he reproduced Charles Johnson’s experiment recreating the August 1, 1972 Burkett document in Microsoft Word in less than five minutes. Newcomer adds: “I was a bit annoyed that the experiment dealing with the 18-August-1973 memo was not compatible, until I changed the font to an 11.5-point font. Then it was a perfect match, including the superscript ‘th’.”

(3) The content of the documents: Mapes ultimately relies on the contents of the documents to authenticate them. However, if the documents did not come from the personal file of Lieutenant Colonel Killian, if the documents were not typed on a typewriter, they cannot be authentic regardless of their content. Even if the documents “meshed” perfectly with the official Bush Guard records, they would still be frauds. Yet Mapes’s “meshing” analysis is also deficient.

Mapes’s analysis of the contents of the documents is scattered throughout her book and in the book’s Appendix 2, her “meshing document.” The “meshing document” is posted in full on her site. The Thornburgh-Boccardi report devotes an entire chapter (chapter VIII) to Mapes’s meshing analysis, comparing the official Bush Guard records with the Burkett documents. The report found several problems with the content of the documents.

To take just one example, in the Burkett document dated May 4, 1972, Lieutenant Colonel Killian orders Bush to report for a physical at Ellington Air Force Base no later than May 14, 1972. Testimony from witnesses, including Major General Bobby Hodges and other officers who served with Bush at Ellington Air Force Base, indicated that no one had ever seen or heard of “an order commanding anyone to take a physical, much less Lieutenant Bush.” The requirement of an annual physical was automatic.

The report found that there was a 90-day window during which a pilot could take his physical, and that the window ended on the last day of a pilot’s birth month; in Bush’s case, the earliest he could have sought a timely physical was on May 4, 1972 and the 90-day window for it would have closed on July 31, 1972. The Thornburgh-Boccardi report accordingly concluded that the May 4, 1972 memo “does not mesh well with the official Bush records.”

Colonel William Campenni also addressed the memo in a January 2005 Washington Times column after the release of the Thornburgh-Boccardi report. Campenni noted:

[F]or the weekend that 1st Lt. Bush was supposedly ordered to report for his physical, May 13-14, 1972, the Ellington Air Guard Base was closed. It was Mother’s Day. Except for emergencies, Air Guard units never drilled on Mother’s Day; the divorce lawyers would be waiting at the gate.

If George Bush showed up at the clinic that weekend, he would have had to get the key from the gate guard. The drill weekend for May 1972 was the following weekend, May 20-21.

What does Mapes have to say about these “meshing” problems in Truth and Duty? Nothing.

In an important sense, however, Truth and Duty gives us a key insight into the motivations of Mary Mapes. She is still peddling the same fraud that she was peddling on September 8, 2004, but whatever the state of her knowledge was then, she must now know that she is peddling a fraud. Although Mapes portrays herself throughout the book as a victim, she is in fact a perpetrator who has yet to acknowledge her offense.

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