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.
When CBS finally announced it could no longer stand behind the broadcast on September 20, it appeared that the network's decision to conduct an aggressive self-defense had come to a proper end--that it had been humbled by its calamitous conduct and was prepared to make a clean breast of its mistakes. But it's clear from the report released last week that CBS's aggressive self-defense has continued, albeit in a new and clever form. The network hired supposedly independent outside examiners, but whether consciously or not, its two Wise Men turned out to be shills for CBS.
JUST AS THEIR REPORT tells us nothing we didn't already know back in September, it similarly finds no fault with CBS News beyond the blame the network laid upon itself in the course of its apology on September 20. At the time, CBS did not admit that the documents were fabrications, only that they could not be authenticated. Last week's report featured a precise echo of that explanation.
"Based on what we now know," the network said of the broadcast, "CBS News cannot prove that the documents are authentic, which is the only acceptable journalistic standard to justify using them in the report. We should not have used them. That was a mistake, which we deeply regret." For their part, Thornburgh and Boccardi announced they were "not able to reach a definitive conclusion as to the authenticity of the . . . documents."
According to the report, the problem wasn't exactly that Mapes and Company perpetrated a fraud. Instead, the problem was really one of carelessness. They didn't properly establish the "chain of custody" of the documents. They didn't pay enough attention to the inability of document experts to verify those documents. And they kept on defending themselves on the air even after the controversy began swirling around the documents. "If you're looking for a villain in this story, we have one," Thornburgh said on PBS last week. "It's haste; the haste with which this program was put together short-cut a lot of the necessary vetting that had to be done in order to authenticate the whole process."
This is a preposterous line of argument. The problem with the story had nothing to do with the purity or lack thereof of the reporting process--and anyway there is no such thing as a reporting process. If the documents had not been exposed as fabrications, Mary Mapes and CBS News would still have made every mistake for which they are tasked in the report--and yet they would have been garlanded, hailed, rewarded with journalism prizes. The haste for which they are now being attacked would instead have been considered wondrously aggressive competitiveness. And they might have taken home the ultimate prize--the knowledge that their reporting had brought down a presidency.
If all they are guilty of is carelessness, excessive haste, then why did Mapes and three other CBS executives involved in the matter deserve to be fired? Why couldn't they just have been reprimanded, scolded, suspended, given a spanking? Surely such respected professionals can be forgiven an honest lapse in procedural judgment, even on a highly sensitive matter.
After all, doing a story on George W. Bush's National Guard service wasn't exactly controversial. There had been dozens of stories on the matter in the mainstream media all year. And the documents weren't the only new aspect of the CBS story. Rather and Mapes did get an influential Texas politician named Ben Barnes to say on camera that he had intervened to land George W. Bush a slot in the Air National Guard back in 1968. That was a sleazy and unverifiable claim on its own, as Barnes spent most of that year in Switzerland, is an admitted liar, and was one of the biggest fundraisers for John Kerry. But it was new for network TV.
The problem with the story wasn't that it was rushed to air. The problem with the story wasn't that it violated journalistic protocols. The problem was that the story was a lie based on a fraud, and a conveniently timed lie at that--coming as it did only eight weeks before the nation was to go to the polls. And the lie was laid out before the world for all to see in a matter of hours.
The documents weren't exposed as possible fabrications. They were exposed as undeniable fabrications. Why is this so hard for CBS and for Thornburgh-Boccardi to accept? Because once you accept their spuriousness, you can't stop there. You have to ask the question: Why would everybody at CBS fall for such crude forgeries--forgeries so blatant that a lawyer with no particular expertise in document verification could spot them a few hours after the fact?
The report reveals that Mary Mapes had every reason to be skeptical about the provenance of the documents. She procured them from a source with an axe to grind against George W. Bush. She had located the source with help from the editor of a hysterically anti-Bush website. She told her source, Bill Burkett, that she was worried the documents were a "political dirty trick." She hired two document examiners who told her they had grave misgivings about the documents. Despite all this, Mapes barreled forward.
Surely she didn't want to end her career in disgrace. Surely she didn't want to become famous as the perpetrator of a gigantic fraud. She went ahead with the story the way a prosecutor will go ahead with an indictment based on evidence that isn't rock-solid. She went with her gut. Now, why would Mary Mapes's gut tell her the documents were real? We learn from the Thornburgh-Boccardi report that she had for years been operating on the assumption that Bush's service in the National Guard was dirty--long before the explosion of Bush National Guard-bashing led by Democratic National Committee chairman Terry McAuliffe in February 2004.
She had been hoping to do a story on his service as long ago as 1999, and used a very telling turn of phrase in a memo on the subject that year to her boss at the time (cc'ed to Dan Rather). "In his military career," Mapes wrote, "Bush was truly born on third base." Mapes was consciously applying to Dubya a famously vicious crack made in 1988 against his father by the colorful Texas populist pol Jim Hightower, who said that the elder George Bush was "a man who was born on third base and thinks he hit a triple." It's more than fair to infer from this that Mapes had been swimming in the seas of Bush hatred for many years before she got her hands on Bill Burkett's fabricated documents. She went to work with a freelance producer on the Burkett story who said excitedly in an email that Burkett had "information that could possibly change the momentum of an election"--and there is no indication that Mapes disagreed with him about his interpretation.
She believed the forgeries were real because she wanted to believe the forgeries were real. Indeed, she still believes they are real. In a statement last week, she said "the segment presented to the American people facts they were free to accept or reject, and that as those facts were presented, there was nothing that was false or misleading." Mapes thereby revealed herself to be a patsy, a mark, a victim of the Big Con. Viewers of the great 1973 movie The Sting, which introduced the concept of the Big Con, will recall that the secret of this ultimate confidence game is that the mark must never come to know that he was played. He must continue to believe the game was the real thing.
Everybody else at CBS seemed to take Mapes's word for it that the documents were kosher. But here's the thing: Mapes's superiors knew before the story aired that her reporting was slanted against Bush in an obvious and undisguised manner. The evidence for this is that Mapes's superiors took the unusual step of editing the segment themselves to remove a vociferous personal attack on Bush by David Hackworth, the decorated Vietnam veteran who knew absolutely nothing about the Texas Air National Guard or the documents or much of anything else about the future president's military service.
The inclusion and removal of the Hackworth remarks is the smoking gun here. By editing Hackworth out, CBS News president Andrew Heyward (who kept his job) and his deputy Betsy West (who lost hers) were not trying to provide balance to an unbalanced report. They were trying to hide the motivating animus behind the segment. With Hackworth in, they would not have had what the CIA used to call "plausible deniability"--the ability to pretend that the only reason for doing the story was to get the facts out.
On the matter of liberal bias in the mainstream media, Thornburgh and Boccardi chose to conclude that they did "not find a basis to accuse those who investigated, produced, vetted or aired the Segment of having a political bias." In this way, they sought to continue CBS's effort at plausible deniability, which was very nice of them but also profoundly stupid of them. In the end, they come off like Jimmy Durante in the legendary scene in the 1935 Broadway spectacular Billy Rose's Jumbo, in which the great comedian was caught trying to sneak a real live elephant off stage.
"What are you doing with that elephant?" a policeman demanded.
"Elephant?" Durante replied. "What elephant?"
John Podhoretz is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard. He last wrote on Dan Rather's Day of Reckoning.