Monday, September 20, 2004
CBS News sees the light?: Both The Washington Post and The New York Times are reporting that CBS News will finally admit today that it was "misled" on the forged documents its been peddling for the past couple of weeks.
From the Post:
CBS News plans to issue a statement, perhaps as early as today, acknowledging that it was misled on the purported National Guard memos the network used to charge that President Bush received favored treatment 30 years ago.
The statement would represent a huge embarrassment for the network, which insisted for days that the documents reported by Dan Rather on "60 Minutes" are authentic. But the statement could also help defuse a crisis that has torn at the network's credibility.
It is not clear whether the acknowledgement will include an apology for a story now believed to be based on forged documents, although that is under consideration, sources familiar with the matter said. The sources said they could not be identified because the network is making no official statement.
But the interesting thing to note here is the idea of an "apology." The apology being contemplated is surely to CBS News viewers and not the victim of the slander -- President George W. Bush.
This scandal exists because of CBS News' hostility towards President Bush. They wanted these fake memos to be true so badly that they tossed their journalistic standards in the gutter as they ran down the road to destruction.
As CBS News' case that the forged memos were "authentic" devolved into the bizarre claim that they were "accurate," Rather continued to insist that the White House answer the questions raised by the memos. That doesn't bode well for CBS News doing all that it needs to do to put this incident behind them.
First, CBS News needs to apologize to its viewers and President Bush for the initial story.
Second, CBS News needs to apologize for its refusal to be transparent as possible about the process by which the forged memos were initially "authenticated." CBS News' order for at least one of their experts not to talk with other press outlets was inexcusable.
Third, CBS News needs to apologize to those who initially broke the story for dismissing them as partisan operatives and impugning their motives while simultaneously failing to acknowledge possible partisan motives of the source of the memos.
Fourth, CBS News needs to apologize for its increasingly desperate attempts, in the face of overwhelming evidence, to defend its initial story at the expense of its credibility and honesty. This would include its decision to use a former typewriter repairman to testify to the validity of the memos instead of an accredited document examiner.
Finally, CBS News needs to identify the source of the forged memos. Journalistic ethics require that you protect your source when they provide you with information based upon their anonymity. There, however, is a flip side to that agreement -- a flip side that you usually don't hear much about. For this typical journalistic agreement to hold, the source can't be lying to you. They can be using you -- but that's something even novice journalists come to recognize pretty quickly -- but they can't peddle false information through you.
In the normal course of events CBS News wouldn't be facing this problem. Through the journalistic equivalent of due diligence the story never would have aired and this would've just been another case of some partisan crank trying to use the media.
It's one thing if the information is provided to you in good faith -- but that's not the case here. CBS has vouched for the provenance of the documents -- which means that they know the creator of the forgeries.
Now that CBS News has run with the story, they must reveal the source that suckered them. There is no ethical rule requiring the source's protection when they have lied to you and induced you to trash your own credibility.
There's also another reason why CBS News needs to reveal their source -- it should have a deterrent effect on others who would consider peddling freshly minted 30-year-old documents.
CBS News needs to do each and every one of these things if it truly wants to come clean and begin rebuilding its shattered credibility -- anything less smacks of a continued refusal to acknowledge reality.
What this would mean for CBS News managing editor Dan Rather and producer Mary Mapes or even CBS News chief Andrew Heyward I do not know. I think it's unlikely, however, that CBS can accomplish the five things I've outlined without a few heads rolling.