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Political Bias? What Political Bias?

From the January 24, 2005 issue: The failure of CBS's investigative panel.

Jan 24, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 18 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
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AFTER SPENDING THREE MONTHS ON an investigation that must have rung up hundreds of thousands of dollars in billable hours, the team of lawyers hired by CBS to investigate its scandalously spurious report about George W. Bush's long-ago National Guard service finally concluded last week that CBS shouldn't have aired the September 8 broadcast at all. Former attorney general Dick Thornburgh and former Associated Press chief Louis D. Boccardi, who led the investigative panel, declared that there had simply been too many questions about the veracity of the supposedly bombshell documents on which it relied.

In other words, the Thornburgh-Boccardi team said little more than CBS News had already acknowledged all the way back on September 20, the very day the two men were first asked to undertake their investigation. Aside from some fascinating tidbits here and there in the course of its 224 pages, the report adds little to the storehouse of knowledge about the libelous hit job on the president--a storehouse of knowledge that was already nearing capacity within a mere 18 hours of the broadcast itself.

Stockholders in Viacom, the parent company of CBS, may want to grill network president Leslie Moonves about fiduciary responsibility. Not because CBS has been forever tainted by the scandal, though it surely has been. Simply put, there was no reason for Moonves to spend half a million dollars of the network's money on a report that could have been written for free by an intern with a dial-up Internet connection and a decent knowledge of how to use Google effectively.

A brief recap: Just after 8 p.m. Eastern time on September 8, 2004, Dan Rather reported on 60 Minutes that CBS possessed documents written in 1972 and 1973 by George W. Bush's superior officer in the Texas Air National Guard. The documents, procured by superstar producer Mary Mapes, indicated that young Dubya had defied a direct order from his superior--an enormously serious charge to level against a commander in chief in a time of war. CBS posted photographs of the documents on its website. Less than four hours later, at 11:59 p.m., an Atlanta lawyer named Harry MacDougald dropped a comment onto a long chain of complaints about the show on the conservative website freerepublic.com. (It doesn't cost anything to read freerepublic.com.)

MacDougald said he believed the memos were forgeries because they appeared to be typographical anachronisms. His cursory examination of them revealed that they were proportionally spaced--like this very line of type you're reading right now. But while proportional spacing is something that word-processing programs on personal computers do as a matter of course, conventional typewriters in use in 1972 could not do it at all. (MacDougald didn't charge anyone for his analysis.)

Two people emailed his remark to another conservative website, powerlineblog.com, which gave it wider distribution early the next morning. (Power Line is run free of charge.) A few hours after that, a jazz musician and website designer named Charles Johnson printed out one of the CBS files and retyped the text on his own computer using the default settings of Microsoft Word. When he printed out the CBS file and then his own Microsoft Word file and layered one on top of the other, Johnson discovered they were identical. Later, Johnson went to the trouble of making a little animated movie showing how the documents blended together exactly and posted it on his website, littlegreenfootballs.com. (The price Johnson charged to watch his movie: Nothing.)

Johnson posted his finding on littlegreenfootballs.com at 1:24 p.m., September 9. This was nearly irrefutable evidence that a supposed 1972 memo had actually been typed on a computer using modern word-processing software. A mere 18 hours after the broadcast, CBS was (in the now immortal capitalized word of the network's own chief PR flack Gil Schwartz) "TOAST."

Despite Schwartz's appropriately hysterical warning (in an internal September 10 email reproduced in the Thornburgh-Boccardi report), CBS had committed itself to an aggressive self-defense, with Rather hotly defending the story on the CBS Evening News and his producer Mary Mapes doing follow-up reports intended to buttress the case for the documents. The network remained in this snarling self-defense mode for 11 days, even as growing layers of evidence--most of it still being produced free of charge by people releasing their analyses on blogs--continued to buttress the unassailable conclusion that the documents had been fabricated.