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Whitewash

The CBS Report ignores the heart of the controversy, refuses to draw conclusions, and strengthens the hand of Mary Mapes and Dan Rather.

9:07 PM, Jan 10, 2005 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
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MARY MAPES is right. In a response to her firing from CBS News, the former star producer accuses CBS of "scape-goating" her and says that her dismissal is the result of "corporate and political considerations."

The key to Mapes's defense is her insistence that the documents she provided CBS were authentic. "It is noteworthy the panel did not conclude that these documents are false," she says. She could not be more right.

The Thornburgh-Boccardi report deals mostly with the news-gathering practices of CBS, which is all well and good. But what was needed was a definitive accounting of the truth. There were three questions the report needed to address:

Where did the documents come from? We are told Bill Burkett informed CBS that a woman named "Lucy Ramirez" arranged a drop of the documents to him. We are also told that Burkett declined to cooperate with the panel. And that's that. But what of Lucy Ramirez? Who is she? What was her role? Does she even exist? We don't know. Ramirez is referenced seven times (on pages 35, 210, and 211). Here is the report's final mention of her: "[CBS News, after the story aired] sent personnel into the field to attempt to find Ramirez and thus possibly to confirm the new account. This effort proved unsuccessful." Exit Lucy Ramirez, stage left.

Unlike the New York Times, which painstakingly re-reported Jayson Blair's stories and aired all of the factual dirty laundry, the Thornburgh-Boccardi panel seems to have done little investigating of its own.

Were the documents legitimate? The panel seems to have made some minimal consultation with experts about the documents in question, but its conclusions could not be clearer: "The Panel reaches no definitive conclusion as to whether the Killian documents are authentic. . . . it may never be possible for anyone to authenticate or discredit the documents." (page 134) And "Again, the Panel stresses that it is making no finding as to the authenticity of the Killian documents." (page 150) The conclusion is summed up neatly by Les Moonves who, responding to the report, allowed that "documents could not be authenticated from Xeroxed copies."

But note the language: You may not be able to authenticate a document from a Xerox copy, but surely you can discredit it. If, for instance, I handed you a Xerox copy of a note purporting to be an email from Saint Paul to Saint Peter, you could, after careful study, conclude that it was a forgery. If, that is, you were concerned with such matters.

Why did CBS News run with the story? Here, again, the panel declines to posit a credible answer, citing only a vague "rush to air" and fear of "heavy competition." Yet they tip-toe up to a definitive answer, even going so far as to include a section of the report describing evidence of political bias. And then Thornburgh and Boccardi retreat, denying that the evidence they've just detailed proves anything.

FOR ITS PART, the blogosphere seems fairly sublime about the scandal's final denouement. Soxblog called the report "half a loaf." Jim Geraghty said that the "report did not live up to our worst expectations." At Captain's Quarters, Captain Ed saw the report as very nearly a victory: "In other words, we have CBS producers lying, management AWOL, and the entire enterprise embarrassing itself. These aren't minor points, and admitting them doesn't make this a whitewash." Power Line's John Hinderaker was even more gracious, saying:

I should add that I don't attach great significance to the authors' failure to state a definite conclusion that the documents were fakes. The report does an excellent job of marshalling the evidence as to content, format and typography. No one (except, perhaps, Dan Rather) can read that evidence without concluding that the documents were a hoax. Whether the authors stopped short of the obvious conclusion in order to help CBS, or out of an excess of caution, I have no idea. But the evidence arrayed by the authors against the CBS documents is the last nail in the coffin of those who have continued to argue that they might, after all, be genuine.

One of the only bloggers raising his voice against the report was Hugh Hewitt, who observed that the panel had abdicated the central question put to it.

HEWITT couldn't be more correct. Surely the blue-ribbon report had the responsibility not merely to critique CBS standards and practices, but to help us find out the truth about the incident at hand. To return to the New York Times analogy, it would be like judging the Jayson Blair case without knowing what he had and hadn't made up. By assiduously avoiding conclusions of any kind, the report has left only one possible conclusion: The Thornburgh-Boccardi panel believes that the way in which CBS went about its business may have been improper, but that the story they produced wasn't necessarily wrong. If anything, this represents a step backward in the official reckoning of the case.

Dan Rather understands this. On page 208 we learn that "Rather informed the Panel that he still believes the content of the documents is true because 'the facts are right on the money,' and that no one had provided persuasive evidence that the documents were not authentic."

And Mary Mapes understands it, too. "Indeed, in the end, all that the panel did conclude was that there were many red flags that counseled against going to air quickly . . ." she says now. "I am heartened to see that the panel found no political bias on my part, as indeed I have none."

Well, if the documents weren't forged and Mary Mapes acted with no political bias, then her firing would have been unjust and she really would be a scapegoat. But since there is abundant evidence that the documents were forgeries and that political attitudes were important in driving the story, the better conclusion is that the CBS Report is a whitewash.

Jonathan V. Last is online editor of The Weekly Standard. He also runs the blog Galley Slaves.