In John Frankenheimer's Seven Days in May, a cabal of military leaders plots to overthrow the U.S. government because they oppose the president’s foreign policy. The scandal over last week’s 60 Minutes II episode increasingly resembles a remake of that film — with bumbling media mavens standing in for seditious servicemen, and with a band of Internet bloggers acting as the hero who thwarts them.
Last Wednesday evening, the CBS program "60 Minutes II" aired a story critical of President George W. Bush’s National Guard service. Its case was based largely on four memos apparently written in 1972 and 1973 by the late Lt. Col. Jerry Killian, Bush’s commanding officer.
Soon after the program aired, many Internet bloggers concluded, based on their own analysis, that these documents were inauthentic. Their verdict is now widely accepted by independent professional typography experts, and it appears that CBS willfully ignored the concerns of its own document analysts.
Dan Rather and CBS News have relentlessly defended their reporting of the story, repeatedly asserting that multiple experts had authenticated the documents. Up to the time of this writing, however, they have refused to share the names of all but one of the document examiners whom they consulted (more on this individual, below).
Late on Tuesday, ABC News reported that it had identified two of the previously unnamed CBS experts, Emily Will and Linda James. Both denied having authenticated the memos. Emily Will told reporters that she quickly found problems with the document CBS hired her to review and "sent the CBS producer an e-mail message about her concerns," strongly urging the network "not to use the documents." She added, "I told them that all the questions I was asking them on Tuesday night, they were going to be asked by hundreds of other document examiners on Thursday if they ran that story."
Linda James was also dubious about the documents and told ABC reporters, "I did not authenticate anything, and I don't want it to be misunderstood that I did."
CBS ran the story nonetheless, making no reference to either analyst's objections. Most recently, CBS denied the assertions of both James and Will, with spokeswoman Sandy Genelius claiming that they "played a peripheral role and deferred to another expert," Marcel Matley.
Matley is the one authenticator, referred to above, that CBS has publicly identified. When Dan Rather defended the 60 Minutes story on Friday, September 10th, he told viewers that "[d]ocument and handwriting examiner Marcel Matley analyzed the documents for CBS News. He says he believes they are real. …"
[M]odern copiers and computer printers are so good that they permit easy fabrication of quality forgeries. From a copy, the document examiner cannot authenticate the unseen original but may well be able to determine that the unseen original is false. Further, a definite finding of authenticity for a signature is not possible from a photocopy, while a definite finding of falsity is possible. [italics added]
Since Rather also stated that CBS has only photocopies of the alleged memos, he clearly claimed that Matley had authenticated those copies — something Matley himself has said "is not possible."
Though CBS reportedly asked Matley not to speak to other news organizations, he was interviewed for a September 14th article in The Washington Post. In that article, Matley acknowledged that he reviewed the copied memos for CBS, but flatly denied that he had authenticated them. He told Post reporters: "I knew I could not prove them authentic just from my expertise. … I can't say either way from my expertise, the narrow, narrow little field of my expertise."
As bloggers at the Beldar and Power Line Web sites had already discovered within hours of Rather’s appearance, Matley is a handwriting examiner who does not have any special expertise in typographical analysis. Subsequent reporting by the New York Post confirmed that that Matley "lacks recognized document training."
According to The Washington Post, CBS's "trump card" for validating the memos was retired Maj. Gen. Bobby Hodges, Lt. Col. Killian’s former commanding officer. But Hodges has now told reporters that he never saw the documents, and that they were in fact read to him over the phone. Hodges says that he feels he was misled, and that CBS gave him the impression that the memos were handwritten.
After having seen the memos, Hodges concluded that they were "forgeries."
CBS does not deny reading the documents to Hodges, but claims that he changed his story after actually seeing them.
The litany of questionable professionalism and possible bias goes on and on. CBS News interviewed Lt. Col. Killian's son and widow, both of whom disputed the veracity of the memos, but CBS chose not to air their views in its story. CBS claims that it was told by its source that the memos came from the Lt. Col.'s personal files, but both his widow and son deny that he typed or kept personal files.
Though Lt. Col. Killian's secretary at the time, Marian Carr Knox, is still living, CBS elected not to interview her for the story. On Tuesday, September 14th, The Dallas Morning News did.
"These are not real," Mrs. Knox told The Morning News, pointing to numerous "telltale signs of forgery," including the fact that the typeface did not match either variety of typewriter in use at the time in her National Guard office. "They're not what I typed, and I would have typed them for him," she explained.
Mrs. Knox cannot be mistaken for a Bush supporter. She told reporters that she believed the president is "unfit for office" and that he was "selected, not elected." Most intriguingly, she also said that despite their being forgeries, she believed the documents "accurately reflect the viewpoints of Lt. Col. Killian." (To be fair to President Bush, it should be noted that according to the Washington Times, "Defense Department records show that in 1973 Col. Killian praised Mr. Bush's performance and approved his honorable discharge.")
The irony is compelling. If CBS had listened to its expert advisors and regarded the memos skeptically, it might well have sought out further expert testimony and Mrs. Knox's views. It could then have run the blockbuster story that a forger was apparently trying to skew a presidential election, while still being able to quote Mrs. Knox on Lt. Col. Killian's ostensibly critical views of then-1st Lt. Bush. Even if they had allowed their bias to get the best of them and omitted the fact that Killian is known to have praised Bush, hardly anyone in the major media would have batted an eyelash.
But CBS didn't choose this path.
Before these most recent revelations, it might well have seemed that Dan Rather and CBS News were guilty only of the relatively common journalistic crime of insufficiently researching a story that they wanted to believe. Today, that interpretation has collapsed. The 60 Minutes team is now alleged to have known that the memos had been challenged by their own experts and by Lt. Col. Killian's family, and it appears that "60 Minutes" deliberately chose not to make the public aware of these objections.
Partisan bias appears to have so deeply infected one of the nation's established news organizations that it has rotted from the inside. This will drive more and more people to seek out confirmation of "old media" stories in the open fora of the Internet, where the news is mercilessly, instantaneously and endlessly scrutinized by thousands of critics — all vying with one another to offer the most current, incisive, well-constructed analysis.
The era in which old media could publish only the news they saw fit to print is over. And we are left to wonder, what lies slipped quietly past us before the birth of Internet blogs?
Andrew J. Coulson, senior fellow in education policy at the Mackinac Center, is a former software design engineer for Microsoft Corp. and operates the Internet blog www.TheGantelope.com.
Note: Dan Rather has subsequently apologized for the use of the disputed documents, stating on Sept. 20, "We made a mistake in judgment. ..."
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