Jewish World Review Sept. 13, 2004 / 27 Elul, 5764
John H. Fund
I'd Rather Be Blogging: CBS stonewalls as "guys in pajamas" uncover a fraud
A watershed media moment occurred Friday on Fox News Channel, when Jonathan Klein, a former executive vice president of CBS News who oversaw "60 Minutes," debated Stephen Hayes, a writer for The Weekly Standard, on the documents CBS used to raise questions about George W. Bush's Vietnam-era National Guard service.
Mr. Klein dismissed the bloggers who are raising questions about the authenticity of the memos: "You couldn't have a starker contrast between the multiple layers of check and balances [at '60 Minutes'] and a guy sitting in his living room in his pajamas writing."
He will regret that snide disparagement of the bloggers, many of whom are skilled lawyers or have backgrounds in military intelligence or typeface design. A growing number of design and document experts say they are certain or almost certain the memos on which CBS relied are forgeries.
Mr. Klein didn't directly address the mounting objections to CBS's story. He fell back on what high school debaters call the appeal to authority, implying that the reputation of "60 Minutes" should be enough to dissolve doubts without the network sharing its methods with other journalists and experts. He told Fox's Tony Snow that the "60 Minutes" team is "the most careful news organization, certainly on television." He said that Mary Mapes, the producer of the story, was "a crack journalist" who had broken the Abu Ghraib prison abuse story.
But leaning on reputations does nothing to dispel the doubts raised by bloggers, experts and relatives and associates of the late Lt. Gen. Jerry Killian, the memos' putative author. Gary Killian, Gen. Killian's son, says CBS apparently didn't call several people he suggested they contact who would have contradicted the CBS story. Bobby Hodges, a former Texas Air National Guard general whom "60 Minutes" claimed had authenticated the memos, says that when he was read them over the phone he assumed they were handwritten and wasn't told that CBS didn't have the originals. He now says he doesn't believe the memos are genuine.
Hugh Hewitt, the unofficial historian of the blogging movement, says that "bloggers have been overwhelmed with e-mails from active-duty and retired military who scoff at the form of the memos." They point out the man cited in the memo as pressuring Mr. Killian to "sugar coat" the Bush military record had left the Texas Air National Guard a year and a half before the memo was supposedly written. In addition, typewriters with perfect centering ability were nonexistent in 1972 and 1973, and National Guard regulations barred the maintenance of such records. Mr. Killian's widow adds that her late husband kept no personal files from his Guard duty, notes that CBS won't reveal its source, and says the memos are bogus. Earl Lively, director of operations for the Texas Air National Guard in the 1970s, told the Washington Times that the memos are "forged as hell."
CBS's fallback defense is that its story was only partly based on the documents and points to its on-camera interview with former Texas House speaker and lieutenant governor Ben Barnes, who claimed that he pulled strings to gain a place for Mr. Bush in the National Guard. But Mr. Barnes is clearly unreliable. The New York Times reported last February that an unnamed former Texas official later revealed to be Mr. Barnes was telling reporters he had interceded on behalf of Mr. Bush but that his story "was subject to change, and there were no documents to support his claims."
Indeed, Mr. Barnes's own daughter says her father's story can't be trusted. Amy Barnes Stites called a talk radio show Thursday to report that her father had told her a different version in 2000, when Mr. Bush first ran for president. "I love my father very much, but he's doing this for purely political reasons," she said. "He is a big Kerry fund-raiser and he is writing a book also. And the [Bush story] is what he's leading the book off with. . . . denied this to me in 2000 that he did get Bush out (of Vietnam). Now he's saying he did." When hostess Monica Crowley asked Ms. Stites if she believed her father had lied in his interview on "60 Minutes," she replied "Yes, I do. I absolutely do."
"60 Minutes" may have a sterling reputation in journalism, but it has been burned before by forged documents. In 1997 it broadcast a report alleging that U.S. Customs Service inspectors looked the other way as drugs crossed the Mexican border at San Diego. The story's prize exhibit was a memo from Rudy Comacho, head of the San Diego customs office, ordering that vehicles belonging to one trucking company should be given special leniency in crossing the border. The memo was given to "60 Minutes" by Mike Horner, a former customs inspector who had left the service five years earlier. When asked by CBS for additional proof, he sent another copy with an official stamp on it.
CBS did not interview Mr. Camacho for its story. "It was horrible for him," says Bill Anthony, at the time head of public affairs for the Customs Service. "For 18 months, internal affairs and the Secret Service had him under a cloud while they established that Horner had forged the document out of bitterness over how he'd been treated." In 2000, Mr. Horner admitted he forged the memo "for media exposure" and was sentenced to 10 months in federal prison. "Mr. Camacho's reputation was tarnished significantly," Judge Judith Keep noted.
Mr. Camacho sued CBS and eventually settled for an undisclosed sum. In 1999 Leslie Stahl read an apology on the air: "We have concluded we were deceived, and ultimately, so were you, the viewers."
If it turns out that the Killian memos are indeed forgeries, the Internet will have played an invaluable role in exposing the fraud much faster than the 18 months Mr. Camacho had to twist in the wind. Free Republic, a Web bulletin board, raised early warning signals about the memos within hours of last Wednesday's "60 Minutes" broadcast. Powerlineblog.com, a site run by three lawyers, reposted those comments, which were amplified by indcjournal.com. Then design expert Charles Johnson, who blogs at littlegreenfootballs.com, retyped one of the memos using Microsoft Word and showed them to be a perfect typographic match.
A defensive Dan Rather went on the air Friday to complain of what he called a "counterattack" from "partisan political operatives." In reality, traditional journalism now has a new set of watchdogs in the "blogosphere." In the words of blogger Mickey Kaus, they can trade information and publicize it "fast enough to have real-world consequences." Sure, blogs can be transmission belts for errors, vicious gossip and last-minute disinformation efforts. But they can also correct themselves almost instantaneously in sharp contrast with CBS's stonewalling.
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JWR contributor John H. Fund is author, most recently, of "Stealing Elections: How Voter Fraud Threatens Our Democracy". (Click HERE to purchase. Sales help fund JWR.)
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©2001, John H. Fund