CBS owes its viewers more than just an apology

September 23, 2004|By Linda Chavez

WASHINGTON -- CBS just doesn't get it.

It's not enough to say you're sorry when your network's most prominent and trusted journalists tried to influence the outcome of an election. And make no mistake, that's what Dan Rather and his associates at 60 Minutes tried to do Sept. 8, when they aired a story claiming George W. Bush disobeyed a direct order from his commander in the Texas Air National Guard during the Vietnam War.

On Monday, the network admitted that "CBS News cannot prove that the documents [alleging Mr. Bush's malfeasance] 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."

Mistakes were made. We're sorry. But don't worry; we'll investigate what went wrong. Let's move on. Trust us.

But why should we? Mr. Rather can profess that he's a "fact-finder" and "truth-teller" till armadillos fly, but his actions belie those sentiments. In interviews following his admission that he should not have used the discredited documents -- which virtually everyone now agrees are forgeries -- Mr. Rather still maintains that the thrust of his reporting on Mr. Bush's National Guard service was true and accurate.

"We were not right in every detail," he told WCBS reporter Marcia Kramer on Monday, but "we had a wealth of information. We knew the basic information was true."

Knew it was true? How? President Bush has ordered that all records related to his service in the National Guard be released. Although some records may have been lost -- they are 30 years old, after all -- literally hundreds of pages have been released, and there is nothing in them that even hints that Mr. Bush ever disobeyed a direct order or used political influence to secure his place in the Guard. To the contrary, the documentary evidence and most credible contemporary witnesses have contradicted both allegations.

Yet in the face of the evidence, Mr. Rather insists these allegations are true with the kind of zeal only a partisan can muster. He didn't just rush to judgment on the initial 60 Minutes report. Within a week, he defended the story twice on the CBS Evening News, charging that the criticisms of the story were coming from "partisan political operatives" even after numerous experts began to raise questions about the documents on which the story was based.

Then he aired a subsequent story on 60 Minutes, which maintained that even if the documents in question were forged, "we do feel that it's important to underscore this point: Those who have criticized aspects of our story have never criticized the heart of it, the major thrust of our report, that George Bush received preferential treatment to get into the National Guard and, once accepted, failed to satisfy the requirements of his service. If we uncover any information to the contrary, rest assured we shall report that also."

But information to the contrary has been widely available since February. As Byron York wrote in National Review in early March, Mr. Bush "was given an honorable discharge after serving five years, four months, and five days of his original six-year commitment," having been released early -- a custom common at the time -- to attend Harvard Business School. Nearly two years of Mr. Bush's service was full-time active duty.

During his time in the Guard, Mr. York reports, records show Mr. Bush earned the requisite number of points -- 50 a year -- to fulfill his obligation every year he served: 253 in year one, 340 in year two, 137 in year three, 112 in year four, and 56 in years five and six.

Mr. Rather and his 60 Minutes producer, Mary Mapes, showed no genuine interest in reporting the truth. Their obvious motive was to discredit a sitting president, to portray him as a shirker unfit to be commander in chief. Ms. Mapes has admitted she's been chasing this story for five years. Her eagerness to move the story forward included urging Joe Lockhart, the former Bill Clinton White House spokesman who is now a top aide in John Kerry's campaign, to talk to Bill Burkett, the man who provided the forged documents to CBS.

Mr. Rather and Ms. Mapes must go.

Anything less makes CBS itself a witting accomplice in this partisan political attack.

Linda Chavez's syndicated column appears Thursdays in The Sun.

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