This is not déjà vu all over again.
In other words, exactly what I expected.
The Times apparently made a tragic mistake in using documents that turned out to be forgeries or fantasies (or some other “F” word) to buttress their report that rapper Tupac Shakur was killed by cohorts of Sean Combs.
I empathize with the reporters and editors who worked on the story, but I don’t identify with them.
My situation was and is different, despite the fact that a number of news agencies have appeared to equate the two.
In the years since three other producers and I lost our jobs and Dan Rather was hustled out the door at CBS for broadcasting a report on George W. Bush’s abortive National Guard service, a sloppy shorthand has set in about our story. The documents were demonstrably false, we were careless in using them and the heroic investigative journalists of the right-wing website set saved the day.
Blah, blah, blah.
People subscribing to this stuff are either politically motivated or charter members of the Howard Kurtz conventional wisdom club, a group in which I have never participated. If I had been a member, I never would have found or reported the Abu Ghraib story, the truth about Strom Thurmond’s secret daughter or any of the other subjects I covered for fifteen years at CBS News, many of which fell outside mainstream media interests.
But since the LA Times incident has dredged up another round of discussion that touches on my work and my name, I want to weigh in, too.
For the record, when we did the Bush Guard story we did not rely solely on any document, but on reams of research that we (and other news outlets) had done and official records that clearly showed the future commander-in-chief had made a command decision at the height of the Vietnam War to take a hike from the National Guard. We also secured an exclusive interview with the former Texas Lieutenant Governor who helped Bush get into the Guard and had never before told his story publicly.
The documents we used–which were presented to us and to our viewers as “purportedly” from the files of Bush’s former commanding officer–were peripheral to the real center of the story: how Bush got into the Guard and how he dropped out early without penalty. The right-wing blogosphere was able to hijack the headlines and convince just about everyone that the documents were the only element worthy of discussion.
That is a fatal and flawed way to look at our work.
The disputed documents were fascinating for how they appeared to flesh out some of the long unanswered questions about how Bush’s commanders reacted to his absence. They meshed in every detail with the official documents we already had in terms of time frame, individuals involved and basic confirmable information. They were thoroughly vetted by a team of people working on the Bush story, with special analysis done on the documents’ military terminology, personnel and procedure.
They were also examined by two experienced document analysts who told us they saw no red flags, by another who said she couldn’t make any determination since they weren’t originals and by a final examiner who told me they couldn’t be true because she believed Bush was serving honorably in Alabama at the time they were supposed to have been written. Hers seemed to be a political conclusion.
But back in 2004, it was hard to find anyone who could look at this story in an apolitical way. That was true as we gathered material and it was true in the reaction to the story.
Prior to air, I spoke with the man who oversaw Bush’s commanding officer and he confirmed to me that the content of the memos was “very familiar” and that Bush’s unapproved departure from the Guard had angered his commander. After the ferocious reaction kicked in, however, he quickly caved to the crowd and said he had never confirmed anything to me.
Facing a mob is frightening, even for a career military man.
I believe that the rabid right-wing reaction was the invisible handiwork of the Bush Administration. Bush spokesmen themselves never told us they thought the documents were false. In fact, when we showed the documents to White House staff before airing the story, presidential spokesman Dan Bartlett said the memos really confirmed Bush’s version of events; that they indicated his commanders were aware that he had skedaddled away from the Guard. See, Bartlett seemed to say, his commanders were discussing it right there in the memos!
Despite a months-long, multi-million-dollar corporate investigation, the documents were never proved false and never have been proved false. I am perfectly willing to believe they are, but I need some kind of real proof, something that holds no tinge of politics, something tangible, something we all can agree on.
I am not convinced (and neither are all professional document examiners) by the inconclusive and incomprehensible questions about typeface raised by armchair analysts who’ve never had the chance to scrutinize the documents on paper the way a real analyst would. I’m not persuaded by the bullying rantings of the radical right or the pompous disapproval of the lapdog Beltway media set.
Sorry, guys. We just disagree.
I know what it is like to dismiss out of hand a story that later turns out to be true. When I was told early in 2003 that Afghan detainees were being abused at Baghram Air Base outside Kabul, I flat out didn’t believe it. I didn’t think Americans were capable of that kind of behavior. When I was told about the actions taken at Abu Ghraib, I desperately hoped Americans weren’t capable of that. But we persisted in investigating that story. Tragically, it turned out to be true.
Sometimes conventional wisdom is just plain wrong.
Last week, when I saw that documents used by the Times in its story were being challenged, I went to The Smoking Gun website to see the evidence compiled there. I was expecting to see a detailed discussion of typeface, font, proportional spacing and kerning. What I found had nothing to do with the arguments right-wing blogs used against the documents in the Bush story.
This was something different: a classic debunking, a shredding not just of the documents, but of the source, the point of the report, the witnesses, the conclusions drawn and the horse the story rode in on. The documents have been linked to a man serving time–for fraud, for God’s sake–a fellow with a colorful history of criminality, forgery and self-aggrandizement. The documents contain the same kinds of misspellings and grammatical errors made in other papers tracked back to this inmate. A typewriter was used to create the Times‘s supposed copies of reports done by agents, documents known as FBI 302s. In reality, FBI 302s have been computer-generated for thirty years. And finally, a simple check with the FBI revealed that these documents had never been part of their files.
LA Times reporter Chuck Philips, a Pulitzer Prize winner, apologized and the paper announced it would investigate how the mistake was made.
What this whole event did for me was to clarify, yet again, what a politically motivated Joe McCarthy moment the attack on CBS had been.
The would-be media watchdogs of the right haven’t really given a damn about the LA Times story, but then there is no political ax to grind here, no President to defend, no troops to rally against the bogeyman of the supposed liberal media.
It was simply a mistake.
Somebody needs to buy Chuck Philips a drink–or two. He needs a sympathetic friend right now. The rest of us need some perspective.
The Times incident recalls something that every police officer knows–that if a burglar wants to break into a building badly enough, he will find a way.
That is equally true of someone who wants badly enough to debunk, defraud or dupe journalists. It can be done. And the history of our deeply human profession is littered with examples of great reporters led astray, stories created out of whole cloth unwittingly reported as truth, and errors in judgment that are confounding in retrospect.
Sy Hersh, one of this country’s most tenacious, most prolific investigative reporters was taken in back in 1997 by a document that was supposed to be a note from Marilyn Monroe to JFK. It was revealed to be false when someone noticed that it bore a zip code, a dead giveaway that it had been forged. Zip codes didn’t exist at the time the letter was supposed to have been written.
Again, the forgery was clear. It was in black and white. The conclusion was inescapable. That is simply not the case with the Bush documents.
But journalism is an inexact science, if it can be considered a science at all. Done best, it requires taking chances–choosing to doubt, choosing to believe, choosing to keep digging.
It is not the kind of error made by the LA Times that truly undermines the media and the public’s right to know. It is the colossal mistakes made by reporters and editors when they work as a pack, when they succumb to groupthink, when everyone believes the same things about the same things. Those are the mistakes that cost the country most dearly.
The greatest fraud perpetrated in modern journalistic history was the Bush Administration’s linking of Iraq to September 11. The biggest forgery foisted on the media was the Niger documents claiming that Saddam Hussein was seeking yellowcake to be used in nuclear weapons. One of the biggest media mistakes of my generation was for reporters to blindly trust President George W. Bush, a man who had never been to war, never fulfilled his own military duty and never met a predicament his parents couldn’t get him out of.
And the ultimate failing by our media was to unquestioningly allow this man to lead this country into a war for reasons that are still unclear, without the number of soldiers needed to do the job, without the gear needed to protect them and without a clue about how the hell we would get out once we got in.
The results of that journalistic error are still being measured in the streets of Iraq and the small-town cemeteries of the United States. That journalistic error has left in its wake a sea of blood and unbearable heartbreak, lost limbs and lost lives, destruction and despair. And there is no end in sight.
Now that, my friends, is a media scandal.