January 10, 2005

Journalism 101

Well, here it is. It's a bit late, but it's nice to see a little journalistic integrity being displayed here.

It's a long report. Very long. And it covers a lot more than simply whether CBS report relied on forged documents (which it doesn't admit, surprisingly). The length and depth of the report, however, explains why it took since Sept. 22 for it to come out.

Given the sheer length of the report, and given that I'm at work, trying to juggle other, work-related, material, I can only point out some excerpts on the fly.

Smith told the Panel that when Lieutenant Colonel Burkett provided the documents on September 2, he said that he had received them anonymously in the mail. Mapes had a different recollection of what Lieutenant Colonel Burkett said at the same meeting about the source of the documents. Mapes said that Lieutenant Colonel Burkett stated that he received the documents after he was interviewed on a national television show in February 2004 concerning President Bush’s TexANG service, but did not say how he received them or from whom. Mapes added that she spoke to Lieutenant Colonel Burkett on several occasions over the next couple of days to get more information about the source of the documents. Ultimately, Lieutenant Colonel Burkett told Mapes on either September 4 or 5 that he had received the documents from another former Texas Army National Guardsman, Chief Warrant Officer George Conn, a statement that Lieutenant Colonel Burkett would later admit was not true. Mapes and her team of associate producers did virtually nothing to attempt to contact Chief Warrant Officer Conn to confirm this story and further trace the chain of custody of the documents.


Given the tight deadline, Miller did not have sufficient time to learn the fundamentals of document authentication. Had she known the basics, she would have realized that it would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to authenticate the Killian documents because they were copies, the alleged author was dead and no person could be located who was alleged to have been present when the documents were prepared. She instead called various people who she believed had experience in the document and handwriting field to identify potential examiners with requisite expertise. After approximately six hours of work on Friday, September 3, Miller had found four examiners who seemed to have expertise in document and handwriting authentication and who were willing to work over the Labor Day weekend.

Again. Oops. Mind you, I'm all for obtaining a scoop, it's one of the driving ambitions of every beat reporter in the field. But, here you have some grainy, Kinkos copies of supposed damning documents in front of you, and you boil down your vetting process to six hours, with four examiners who were "willing" to work over the Labor Day weekend? Jeez.

On Tuesday, September 7, Rather interviewed Ben Barnes, and a number of excerpts from this interview appeared in the September 8 Segment. The Panel has several concerns about whether the airing of the Barnes interview excerpts constituted fair and accurate reporting by 60 Minutes Wednesday. For example, the excerpts pertaining to Barnes conveyed the 13 unmistakable impression that President Bush gained entry into the TexANG through preferential treatment. Barnes stated, however, that he did not know if his call to a TexANG official back in 1968 made any difference with respect to President Bush. Further, Mapes had been told previously by several former TexANG officers that President Bush entered the TexANG without any preferential treatment. Finally, Mapes confirmed to the Panel that there was conflicting information about whether there even was a waiting list to get in the TexANG as of the spring of
1968. At a minimum, these issues should have been disclosed to the 60 Minutes Wednesday management, but they were not.

I've been trying to revisit my belief that media organizations are biased, primarily thanks to input from Joshua Norton and David Grenier. Still, I've basically come to the conclusion that there is bias, both left and right, throughout the mainstream media. Here, Mapes had supposedly been pursuing a story about Bush's TANG record for "years." Therefore, it stands to reason that she had a preconcieved notion as to what the "truth" actually was, which led to errors in judgement like that illustrated above. One thing newsrooms consistently do is to rotate reporting beats so reporters don't become too familiar with a topic area and develop their own opinions, opnions which can slip into their work. This seems to be what happened here. Which, as I read further. . .

2. Was pursued intermittently for over five years, which could cause the correspondent and producer to become too personally invested in the story;

And I love this part:

Rather does not appear to have participated in any of the vetting sessions or to have even seen the Segment before it was aired.

Then we have this little bit of comedy gold:

All agree that they knew virtually nothing about Chief Warrant Officer Conn, who at that time was thought to be the ultimate source. Mapes and the vetters
have different accounts as to what she told them about Lieutenant Colonel Burkett. Most of the 15 vetters told the Panel that they did not think they heard the name Bill Burkett as the source of the documents prior to the airing of the Segment but did know that the source was a former National Guardsman. Even if the name Bill Burkett had been mentioned, all the vetters said it would not have meant anything to them.

And yet Rather went and said that the source of the documents was "unimpeachable," for a report on which he wasn't even a part of the vetting process, let alone a report he didn't even both to review. Fabulous.

This alleged confirmation by Major General Hodges started to march 60 Minutes Wednesday into dangerous and ultimately unsustainable territory: the notion that since the content of the documents was felt to be true, demonstrating the authenticity of the documents became less important.

In other words, fake but accurate.

Over the next week or so, CBS News issued a number of press statements and CBS Evening News reports that staunchly defended the September 8 Segment despite increasingly strong indications that the reporting for the Segment was flawed. The Panel finds that these statements and reports contained numerous misstatements and inaccuracies. Moreover, the Panel finds that once serious questions were raised, the defense of the Segment became more rigid and emphatic, and that virtually no attempt was made to determine whether the questions raised had merit.


The Panel finds that Lieutenant Colonel Burkett could not be reasonably described as an “unimpeachable source,” 21 given his own inconsistent public statements, as well as his criticisms of President Bush and the National Guard. Further, the statement was inaccurate because the Killian documents were not
backed up by forensic document experts.

Oh, and Rather will be leaving CBS news prematurely, if you didn't already know.

Mapes told the Panel that before Lieutenant Colonel Burkett turned over any of the documents, he had pressed her to arrange for him to be put in touch with someone from the Kerry presidential campaign so that he could provide the campaign with strategic advice on how to rebut the attacks by the “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth” group.

Right then and there, Mapes should have slammed on the brakes, in my opinion. If someone calls and promises to give you some damning documents, but only if you put him in touch with a presidential campaign (and why did Burkett seemingly know that Mapes could deliver that?), you should realize that your journalistic fibers are being stretched, if not torn asunder.

Oh, and Mapes got the axe, too, appropriately.

Whether or not permission was given to Mapes, the Panel finds this contact to be highly inappropriate. The September 8 Segment had a strong political focus and it was to air in the middle of a hotly contested presidential campaign.
While it is certainly proper to receive information from a variety of sources, this contact crossed the line as, at a minimum, it gave the appearance of a political bias and could have been perceived as a news organization’s assisting a campaign as opposed to reporting on a story.

The Panel did not conclude that the piece was politically motivated, however. Even though they admit that:

While the Panel was not asked to look at any other segments of 60 Minutes Wednesday, it did not find any evidence that the flaws of the September 8 Segment carried over to any other segment.

Odd, that.

Overall, I have to admit that the thoroughness of the report is impressive, to the tune of 234 pages, and the findings, at least upon cursory review, seem to be fair and balanced. I'm sure the blogosphere will be tearing through the report like a cat with toilet paper over the next few days. But, the report authors have addressed that, as well:

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, naĂ¯ve, gullible or more. This is not a simple story, but we are confident that we have told it fully and fairly.

We'll see what other people think shortly, I'm sure.

UPDATE: Like I said: Rathergate.com, ratherbiased.com, Instapundit.com, Andrewsullivan.com.

Folks like Sullivan and Instapundit are pointing towards political bias in the 60 Minutes piece, which I suspect as well. However, it was not the job of the panel to expose political bias. They weighed the pros and cons of such a theory, and plugged it into the broader picture of the journalistic meltdown that resulted in the story. I think the panel did a good job examining the political issue, and they, correctly, treated it as a sidenote to the larger investigation.

Posted by Ryan at January 10, 2005 11:34 AM

So Ryan. This about the sixth post you've dedicated to Rathergate. When we clashed about it in September you said, "What I care about is trying to hold on to what pathetic shreds of credibility there is left in journalism."

Fair enough. What I'm curious about is why you dedicate so much time to CBS negligence, but haven't once mentioned Bush administration malfeasance with regard to your cherished profession (Armstrong Williams, Medicaid "reform", anti-drug commercials passed off as real news). I mean, you hold Rather's bias in one hand and Williams' actually taking a bribe to manufacture news in the other, and tell me which one damage's media's credibility more.

I ask this question by way of the "Ryan's partisan biases" argument that you me and David have had so many times in the past. In a way I don't really even want to argue about it. I'm just throwing it out there as something for you to consider in terms of examining your own perspective about this kind of stuff.

Posted by: Joshua at January 10, 2005 02:15 PM

Let's just examine that Armstrong Williams thing, shall we? First off, he was stupid and morally wrong to do it. Second off, what Williams did was promote No Child Left Behind on his radio show and column; reflecting his opinion. Granted, it was partially a bought opnion, but it was still opinion. He wasn't passing off his words as news, in other words, which is what Rather and CBS were doing. See the difference? One is opinion, the other is news, and the audience, typically, realizes the difference. So, again, Armstrong was wrong to take the bribe but, being that he was writing and airing opinion pieces, it doesn't require the same journalistic scrutiny of, say, a breaking news story that had to go through 18 zillion tiers of fact-checking and vetting. You see?

And then you have shit like this going on:


Or you have Dan Rather coming out saying dumb shit like:

"It's very difficult, perhaps impossible, from the outside to understand the conflicting undertows that go through you as a journalist. Flying out, I'm saying to myself, 'They're talking about death tolls that are practically impossible to imagine.' At the same time, you're saying to yourself, 'What a story.' There is no place else I'd want to be. I literally say a prayer of thanks every day in order to have this work. A story like this is why you get in the business."

Or you have crap like this:


Key quote: The tsunami also struck at a critically important moment in the careers of three star anchors - Brian Williams of NBC, Dan Rather of CBS and Anderson Cooper of CNN - who each traveled to the region to lead hours of coverage last week.

All of which just makes you wonder just what purpose the mainstream media really serves nowadays.

Don't mind me. I'm just somewhat depressed about thinking of myself as a journalist today.

Posted by: Ryan at January 10, 2005 02:45 PM

Ahem...Kinko's was bought by FedEx, so they are now called FedEx Kinkos.

I'm just sayin'....just so that you have all of the facts right.

Posted by: Lily at January 10, 2005 03:24 PM

Let's just examine that Armstrong Williams thing, shall we?

Yes, let's examine that Armstrong Williams thing, shall we? Let us. By all means, let us examine it. Shall we, Ryan? Shall we please examine it? I think we shall. Here-- we shall:

I didn't say it was the same thing. What I said was that Williams had committed an unethical act that compromised the integrity of journalism overall and that, since you repeatedly state that your interest in the Rather story is the standard of American journalism, your lack of interest in the Williams story seemed conspicuous.

As a justification for why the Williams story isn't as interesting to you, you say, "Armstrong was wrong to take the bribe but, being that he was writing and airing opinion pieces, it doesn't require the same journalistic scrutiny of, say, a breaking news story." Which could be paraphrased as "wrong — but not really."

(Is that anything like, "forged but accurate"?)

And I notice you're not getting into the question of the fake news at all. Which I'll stipulate, since you seem to have trouble getting this, is not the same thing as the Rathergate story except insofar as it has a bearing on the integrity of journalism.

To be clear: I said "integrity of journalism". Not just "integrity of vetting procedures in journalism" which is evidently the thing that really interests you.

As far as Rather and other reporters getting big chubies about the death toll in South Asia, I might submit that their attitudes be viewed in contrast to, say, the OJ Simpson story. A lot of journalists get involved in reporting because they want to report information that matters. Given the banality of much of what's reported in American media, it must be a huge relief to have an opportunity to report on something that is actually important.

It seems obvious to me that journalists would be passionate about their role in documenting human history. Asking them not to is like saying it's tacky for a cartographer to be excited about the political context of maps; the first person to map the eastern coast of North America wasn't just sketching coastline; he (for it was almost certainly a he) was writing history, and he must have known it. He was also paving the way for genocide, but that's a harder thing for someone whose whole life is about one aspect of human civilization to take in.

If you've never read it, one of the throughlines in Richard Rhodes' The Making of the Atomic Bomb is that most of the scientists involved in building the bomb were so fucking turned on by the science of what they were doing that they only rarely stopped to consider the larger context.

Journalists will naturally get excited about big stories, I think. And the tidal wave story has the advantage that, unlike a lot of what journalists report, nothing they say about it is likely to make it any worse.

Posted by: Joshua at January 10, 2005 03:40 PM

wrong — but not really

Take Ryan's words, and twist every so slightly. Serve chilled, with an olive.

To me, opinion columns are journalism-lite. They sometimes require something in the way of research but, because they're opinion columns, said reseach is usually pretty one-sided. Opinion columns and radio commentary is, well, opinion. The audience can take it as they will.

The CBS news thing, alternatively, put forth a breaking news story that it said shed new truths, (based on bogus documents) on a story and told the audience to "trust us." When confronted with evidence, strong evidence, that the documents were fake, CBS said "no, they're not, continue to trust us," and they refused to address the concerns of those pointing out the glaring evidence.

So, no, the Williams thing doesn't get my undies in a bunch in quite the same way as the memo-gate thing.

It's not that the Williams thing was "wrong, but not really." It's that the Williams thing was wrong, but because it was peddling opinion, rather than news, it wasn't, journalistically-speaking, in the same league. At least not in my mind. You can niggle me on the finer points, but that's basically where I stand. It would be like me finding out that Strip Mining For Whimsy was being paid, under the table, by Ted Kennedy. I'd be like, ehhhhhh, whatever. Because you're not peddling "news," I wouldn't think much of it.

And while I can agree that the news anchors are excited about reporting on news that matters, I still find the salivating dog approach to that reporting is in pretty bad taste.

Posted by: Ryan at January 10, 2005 04:21 PM

Something Mitch Berg-ish about this conversation.

Posted by: Joshua at January 10, 2005 04:35 PM

Why are they calling them the Killian documents? I must have missed that part.

Posted by: Donna at January 11, 2005 07:34 AM

They're called the Killian documents because, supposedly, they were written by Bush's commanding officer, Something Killian. Of course, they were almost certainly written on a PC, probably in 2004, instead of in the 60s, so there's that uncomfortable fact.

Posted by: Ryan at January 11, 2005 09:50 AM

Ohhh. I knew the date of them was wrong, but never heard why they were called that. Thanks.

Posted by: Donna at January 11, 2005 08:25 PM
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