Jewish World Review Sept. 15, 2004/ 29 Elul 5764
The 'death' of CBS News
End-of-life issues are always difficult for any family, and the once-great news division of a once-great network is critically ill and possibly beyond resuscitation.
What is killing the remnants of CBS's credibility is the controversy over documents "60 Minutes" obtained that purport to reveal George W. Bush's failure to submit to a physical "as ordered" while he was in the Texas Air National Guard. There is also a document asserting that Bush's squadron commander, Lt. Col. Jerry B. Killian, succumbed to pressure from a superior to sugarcoat Bush's performance rating because of his influential father.
The problem with this latter assertion is that the superior, Col. Walter "Buck" Staudt, had retired 18 months before the document was supposedly written.
Another question that was raised about the documents concerns the typeface that was used. Some "experts" said the type was not in use in the early 1970s.
Then there were questions about former Texas Lt. Gov. Ben Barnes, who claimed he helped get Bush into the Guard in 1968. The trouble with that story is that Barnes contradicted his earlier statements (no wonder he's a top fund-raiser for John Kerry). Barnes' daughter called him a liar for his latest remarks.
Next it was revealed that retired Maj. Gen. Bobby Hodges claimed CBS had misled him by reading from the documents over the phone instead of showing them to him. When he said they "sounded" like they were written by Killian, CBS took that as confirmation of their authenticity. The problem for CBS is that Killian died in 1984 and is not available for comment.
Anchor Dan Rather, who says the documents are genuine, says CBS management is not conducting an internal investigation. But that is no more credible than the documents in question. Unnamed sources within CBS News told The American Spectator magazine that CBS management is nervous about the fallout from this story. One producer was quoted as saying, "All Dan could say was that this was an attack from the right-wing nuts, and that we should have expected this, given the stakes. He was terribly defensive and nervous."
The way to clear the air is for the original documents to be produced so they can be examined by independent experts. But, according to The American Spectator, CBS doesn't have the originals. The producer is quoted: "Our sources have indicated to us that we will not be getting the originals. How that is possible I don't know."
I do. Suppose the documents were faked by the Kerry campaign, or someone trying to keep the president from being re-elected. That possibility was on the mind of the unnamed producer, who told the magazine, "There are at least two people in this building who have insisted we got copies of these memos from the Kerry campaign by way of an additional source."
Could the timing of the story have something to do with presidential politics, since CBS reportedly has been working on it for more than three years? Reports about Bush's National Guard service and allegations of favored treatment go back to at least 1994, when he was running against Ann Richards for governor of Texas. Why are they making another comeback this close to the election and without the proof that journalism of another era most likely would have demanded?
I called some contemporaries from my youthful days at NBC News. Former NBC News president Reuven Frank told me, "I don't think this story was sufficiently checked out. Everything today seems to be a publicity stunt, not reporting." Former NBC and ABC correspondent Herbert Kaplow blames the CBS fiasco on "a loss of important (journalistic) disciplines. Too many reporters now just use one source and don't check out other sources. Journalism has been affected by cable TV, and many don't seem to care if they are right."
The good news in all of this is that the former media gatekeepers can no longer keep the information gates closed. From Internet blogs to talk radio to cable TV, too many are watching and have access to outlets through which they can send the truth -- or at least other opinions -- to an audience hungry for other views and different sources.
Still, for those with a memory of what journalism used to look like and who remember the great days of Edward R. Murrow, it is sad to see CBS in what could be its death knell should these documents prove to be false and the network proved to have been trying to fool the public for John Kerry's sake.
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