NEW YORK (AP) — Rushing to meet a deadline proved to be the downfall of Dan Rather and his CBS News team when their story questioning former President George W. Bush’s military record collapsed in 2004, a media scandal that is the basis of the current film “Truth.”
As it turns out, 11 years may not have been enough time: Many uncertainties remain. Rather and his producer, Mary Mapes, still believe in what they reported and even some who found CBS’ initial story a journalistic disaster think their account of Bush’s service may be right. But barring a change of heart among people who knew Bush when he served in the Texas Air National Guard in the 1970s, or Bush himself addressing his record, the story is probably at a dead end.
Prior to CBS’ report, several news organizations pursued stories about whether Bush’s National Guard unit was one where elites landed to avoid being sent to the Vietnam War, and whether Bush essentially skated through his last year of service. It was trumpeted as a breakthrough when CBS reported on documents supposedly written by Bush’s former commander, Lt. Col. Jerry Killian, saying Bush did not take a mandatory physical exam and that Killian felt pressured to sugarcoat an evaluation.
Mapes had obtained the documents less than a week before the story aired, two months before Bush was up for re-election.
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In one of the first online attacks prompting action by a mainstream news organization, bloggers immediately questioned whether the documents were fake. They suggested Killian’s letter contained a computer character inconsistent with typewriters at the time. CBS initially defended the story, then apologized when its executives realized they couldn’t vouch for its accuracy, and picked an independent panel to investigate what went wrong.
Following the frantic and unsuccessful effort to back up their work to their boss’ satisfaction, Rather and Mapes were ordered off the story. She was later fired and he left the network.
OTHER QUESTIONS RAISED
Although doubts were later raised about those initial attacks — there were some 1970s era typewriters that had the character in question — other serious questions remained about the documents’ authenticity and the reliability of CBS’ source. It was essentially impossible to get a reputable expert to definitively state they were real given that CBS did not have the original documents and copying causes deterioration, Mapes wrote in her book, “Truth and Duty: The Press, The President and The Privileges of Power.”
The panel that studied CBS’ actions on the story, chaired by former Attorney General Richard Thornburgh and Louis Boccardi, former chief executive of The Associated Press, said it could not determine whether they were real. The panel couldn’t trace how they came into the hands of CBS’ source and, with Killian dead, couldn’t find anyone who could vouch for their creation.
“You can argue that we never got to the original documents,” Rather said in an interview. “But nobody has ever proven that they were anything other than what they were purported to be.”
The panel considered that view years earlier and said that while it might make a good argument, it doesn’t pass journalistic muster because it lacked positive proof.
Whether scared off by doubtful documents, dead ends or political heat applied to CBS, other news organizations rapidly lost interest in pursuing the story, said Mark Feldstein, a University of Maryland professor who is writing a book on journalism scandals, including the CBS story.
“Nobody wanted to get into that tempest,” he said, with one exception — a 2012 Texas Monthly magazine article.
But details of Bush’s military service before his October 1973 honorable discharge have proven elusive.
Rather said the documents got too much attention and were only part of the reporting that Mapes and the CBS team did. “The story is true,” he said.
The film is based on Mapes’ book, advancing her belief that the documents are legitimate, and characterizes the panel looking into the story as being more interested in assessing blame than in the story itself, and protecting CBS’ corporate interests.
Boccardi, who hasn’t seen the movie yet, said he doesn’t want the extent of CBS’ journalistic failures in the “60 Minutes” report overlooked. He did note that there were contradictions, and changed stories, among people familiar with Bush’s military record.
“Thornburgh and I know what happened in the gathering of that story and in the airing of that story and the aftermath of it,” he said. “Our focus was a journalistic one on that period. In doing that, we had to look at the wider picture and that does leave you with some issues.”
The only way to definitively outline Bush’s military record would probably be to sit down with him and go month-by-month through what was going on his life then, he said.
In the midst of his later lawsuit against CBS, Rather uncovered a list of questions about Bush’s service that Thornburgh sent to the White House asking for the president’s direct response — among them whether he had been suspended from flying and if he was aware that Killian had been pressured about his status.
Rather, in his 2012 book “Rather Outspoken,” wrote that White House Communications Director Dan Bartlett responded by saying he’d prefer to keep the president out of the panel’s report. Bartlett has suggested that questions about Bush’s military record were political attacks.
There’s no indication Bush has personally addressed the specifics of his service in a public forum, however.
Before the CBS story aired in 2004, the “Doonesbury” comic strip offered to make a $10,000 donation to the USO in the name of anyone who could prove that Bush served out a portion of his Guard duty in the Alabama National Guard, where Bush had been briefly transferred while he worked on a Senate campaign. Comic strip creator Garry Trudeau said this week that no one did so, although he made the donation to the USO anyway.
“Somewhere out there are a lot of people who know firsthand the truth of what we reported about what Bush did and didn’t do in the military,” Rather wrote in his book. “But they remain silent. So far.”
And maybe forever. Feldstein cautions against expecting any kind of deathbed confessions about Bush’s military service record.
“Part of what makes this an intriguing movie and subject now is that we may never know what happened,” he said. “In fact, we probably will never know what happened with George Bush’s service in the National Guard.”
Follow David Bauder at twitter.com/dbauder. His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/david-bauder