From the media interest surrounding CBS’s investigation into “Memogate,” one would think that the credibility of 60 Minutes’ report on George W. Bush’s National Guard service was the most pressing media issue facing the nation.
Shortly after the report about Bush’s National Guard service aired on 60 Minutes (9/8/04), right-wing commentators and bloggers claimed that the documents supporting the CBS report were fraudulent and pointed to the episode as evidence of “liberal media” bias.
In fact, the CBS review, headed by former Attorney General Dick Thornburgh (an appointee of Bush’s father) and former Associated Press president Louis Boccardi, was not able to state conclusively whether the documents were forgeries or not. The report also found no evidence that political bias was a factor in the network’s journalism. Instead, the report documented a series of misjudgments on the part of several CBS staffers, most notably producer Mary Mapes.
CBS’s investigation did document serious failures in 60 Minutes’ efforts to check its source’s claims– an endemic problem in commercial news. If “Memogate” had called attention to the general issue of credulous journalism, it would have performed a valuable service for the public. But the media discussion of the incident generally treated it as either an aberration or as an emblem of left-wing media bias.
The hours of coverage of the Rather episode managed to ignore what should have been the central question: Did George W. Bush, in reality, properly fulfill his National Guard requirements? On September 14, FAIR noted that CBS was only one of several media outlets to release important reports about documented discrepancies in Bush’s service record. Because of the focus on the CBS documents and the accompanying right-wing accusations of media bias on the issue, those stories– and the important questions they raised– were quickly dropped by a cowed press corps.
The claims that this controversy proves that CBS, or the media as a whole, have a liberal or anti-Bush bias, are ludicrous. When CBS staffers got caught taking shortcuts on a story critical of Bush, it cost them their careers. By contrast, other reporters have received much less scrutiny and punishment for offenses of far greater magnitude– and with much more significant consequences to society. The New York Times, for example, published numerous allegations about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq that turned out to be false– such as one source’s claim that “all of Iraq is one large storage facility” for WMD (9/8/02). Those stories, many of which were splashed on the paper’s front page, did a great deal to sell the White House’s bogus case for war against Iraq.
While the Times has admitted (5/26/04) that some of its WMD reporting was “insufficiently qualified or allowed to stand unchallenged,” the reporter most responsible for those stories, Judith Miller, was never sanctioned by the Times– and indeed still continues to report on Iraq for the paper. Ironically, after MSNBC’s Hardball finished its discussion of CBS and journalistic responsibility on January 10, the show turned to a discussion of Iraq featuring… Judith Miller.
The lesson of “Memogate,” then, is that journalists may be punished for bad reporting– if they have offended the wrong people. If they have merely helped steer the country into war under false pretenses, their careers can continue unimpeded.
Below is FAIR’s September release:
MEDIA ADVISORY: Media Should Probe Bigger Questions About Bush’s Record
September 14, 2004
In the past week, a handful of stories have cast doubt on whether George W. Bush fulfilled his National Guard obligations 30 years ago. Reports by the Associated Press (9/7/04), Boston Globe (9/8/04) and U.S. News & World Report (9/20/04) have all raised new questions about Bush’s military service. Though each of these stories has been accompanied by significant official documentation, developments in the investigations by AP, U.S. News and the Boston Globe have been largely sidetracked by the fixation on questions about the authenticity of documents aired on CBS on September 8.
Weighing the credibility of evidence is an essential function of journalism. Experts have weighed in on both sides on the authenticity of CBS’s so-called Killian memos (New York Times, 9/14/04; Washington Post, 9/14/04); efforts to establish the origin of those documents should continue. However, news outlets that focus on this tangent of the National Guard story to the exclusion of the unchallenged new evidence that has recently emerged are neglecting another essential journalistic task: holding powerful people and politicians accountable.
In the wake of the stories scrutinizing Bush’s stateside service during the Vietnam era, it’s hard to imagine a better situation for the White House than to have the press corps ignore a range of evidence raising questions about Bush’s fulfillment of his obligations while obsessing singularly on one set of documents from one story.
A review of some of the information uncovered in recent news reports:
–The September 7 Associated Press story, based on new records the White House had long maintained didn’t exist, debunked a Bush assertion that he’d skipped his flight physical because the jet he was trained on was becoming obsolete. According to AP, Bush’s unit continued to fly the same jets for two years after the missed physical.
–The September 8 Boston Globe expose concluded that Bush failed in his military obligations by missing months of duty in Alabama and in Boston. As the Globe revealed, Bush had signed contracts on two separate occasions swearing to meet minimum Guard requirements on penalty of being called up to active duty. According to the military experts consulted by the Globe, Bush’s Guard attendance was so bad “his superiors could have disciplined him or ordered him to active duty in 1972, 1973 or 1974.”
–U.S News & World Report (9/20/04) reviewed National Guard regulations and reported that the White House has been using “an inappropriate– and less stringent– Air Force standard in determining that he had fulfilled his duty.” The magazine noted that Bush committed to attend at least “44 inactive-duty training drills each fiscal year” when he signed up for the Guard, but that Bush’s own records “show that he fell short of that requirement, attending only 36 drills in the 1972-73 period, and only 12 in the 1973-74 period.” The magazine explains that even by using the White House’s preferred methodology for measuring Bush’s service, he still fell short of those minimum requirements.
–An NBC Nightly News segment (9/9/04) played a clip of Bush being interviewed in 1988, acknowledging that favoritism sometimes played a part in getting into the National Guard. While he had said that he didn’t think that happened in his case, he did voice his approval of the practice: “If you want to go in the National Guard, I guess sometimes people made calls. I don’t see anything wrong with it.” (He continued with a remark that could be taken as an insult to the men and women who did face combat during the war: “They probably should have called the National Guard up in those days. Maybe we’d have done better in Vietnam.”)
Even CBS’s September 8 broadcasts, the subject of so much scrutiny, included important information beyond what is contained in the disputed memos. On the CBS Evening News and 60 Minutes II that night, CBS featured Ben Barnes, the former speaker of the Texas legislature, describing how he used his political influence to help a young George W. Bush bypass a waiting list and secure a coveted position in the Guard. In addition, the CBS stories also featured an interview with Robert Strong, a former colleague of Bush’s commander, Lt. Col. Jerry Killian, the purported author of the disputed documents. Strong described the pressure Bush’s commander was working under: “He was trying to deal with a volatile political situation, dealing with the son of an ambassador and a former congressman…. And I just saw him in an impossible situation. I felt very, very sorry because he was between a rock and a hard place.”
Instead of asking the White House tough questions about the well-documented information contained in these reports, media have focused almost exclusively on the claims and counter-claims made about the Killian memos– as if the discrepancies over Bush’s service record stand or fall based on this one set of disputed documents. It’s the equivalent of covering the sideshow and ignoring the center ring.