Friday June 3 2005
RATHER'S DENIAL:
Interesting irony on Larry King last night. First King interviewed Woodward & Bernstein, the two men responsible for breaking one of the biggest stories of the century with the help of an anonymous source we now know was the number two man at the FBI. In the next hour King interviewed Dan Rather, the man responsible (at least in part) for one of the bigger journalistic bungles in the modern era, rushing to air a story based on forged documents from very dubious sources to try and influence the outcome of a presidential election.

It's clear that Rather is still in denial about the entire episode. Exhibit A is his willingness to cite the findings of the Thornburgh Boccardi report in his defense:

RATHER: I will point out that the panel, which was headed by a President Nixon, Reagan, Bush family supporter and a journalist who said that George Bush one was one of the greatest people he ever met -- this panel came forward and what they concluded, among the things they concluded after months of investigation and spending millions of dollars, they could not determine that the documents were fraudulent. Important point, that we don't know whether the documents were fraudulent or not.
KING: Are you saying the story might be correct?
RATHER: Well, I'm saying a prudent person might take that view.
KING: Do you have that view?
RATHER: Well, I'm saying a prudent person might take that view...I understand what people write about this story, they often say, well, they dealt with fake documents or fraudulent documents. Let's just say gently that that's not known. That's not a fact. And if you're going to criticize us -- and I think we should be criticized for some of the things we did and didn't do in reporting -- then gently I say, maybe you wouldn't want to say that, and the panel could not and did not conclude it.

What the panel did say quite specifically on page 14 of the report is this:

The Panel has not been able to conclude with absolute certainty whether the Killian documents are authentic or forgeries. However, the Panel has identified a number of issues that raise serious questions about the authenticity of the documents and their content.

The use of the words "absolute certainty" in the first sentence and "serious questions" in the second would lead any "prudent" person to the exact opposite conclusion Rather suggests.

PUTTING FAKE BUT ACCURATE TO THE TEST: Rather also mounted a defense of the fake but accurate standard last night saying that "journalism is not a precise science. It's, on its best day, is a crude art." He also echoed Carl Bernstein's remark that the job of a journalist is to "get the best obtainable version of the truth."

Let's try an experiment with Rather's standard. Suppose I presented you with the following copy of John Kerry's Form 180:

This isn't a real copy of Kerry's Form 180, of course. I forged the entire thing myself last night. But with the exception of the Social Security number, every piece of information on this document (including Kerry's date of birth, place of birth, service dates, telephone number, etc) is correct.

And we know from Joan Vennochi's column last week that Kerry told her personally that he signed Form 180 back on May 20 (although no one has actually seen a copy of it to date). So even though I forged Kerry's signature, by definition the document I've created is fake but accurate.

Suppose I passed this document along to a television reporter saying that I had received it from an anonymous source. And suppose that reporter used the document (along with Vennochi's column and Kerry's public promises about signing the document) as the basis for a segment on their show.

Now imagine if the document's authenticity was called into question and the reporter defended himself or herself using the "fake but accurate" standard and by saying that he or she was just trying to "get the best obtainable version of the truth." It simply would not fly.

The job of a journalist is verify facts and report them honestly - and to candidly admit when and why mistakes are made. That's how you get as close to the truth as possible and how you keep the trust of readers and viewers along the way.

You don't stonewall, obfuscate, and then go on television and continue to suggest to the public there is any sort of credibility in documents that have been so widely and thoroughly discredited. After 50 years in the business you'd think this is a lesson Dan Rather would have already learned. - T. Bevan 9:55 am Link | Email | Send To A Friend

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