RATHERGATE FINALE….My curiosity finally got the better of me and I spent the afternoon reading the official CBS report on Rathergate (main report here, exhibits here). Birthday festivities then occupied the evening, which means I’m just getting around to blogging about it now.

As it turns out, I have mixed feelings about the whole thing. But my primary reaction is simple: it’s a train wreck. A complete disaster. You have to read the whole report to get the full flavor, but the nickel version is simple: it’s unbelievable that this 60 Minutes segment ever got on the air.

The whole story revolves around the infamous Killian memos, and the key problem with the memos was never the typographical evidence ? although that was pretty damning ? but rather their provenance. The memos came from a guy named Bill Burkett, but where did Burkett get them? Here’s the testimony of Mary Mapes, who produced the 60 Minutes segment that aired them, and Michael Smith, a freelance journalist who worked with Mapes:

Smith told the Panel that when Lieutenant Colonel Burkett provided the documents on September 2, he said that he had received them anonymously in the mail. Mapes said that Lieutenant Colonel Burkett stated that he received the documents after he was interviewed on a national television show in February 2004 concerning President Bush?s TexANG service, but did not say how he received them or from whom. Mapes added that she spoke to Lieutenant Colonel Burkett on several occasions over the next couple of days to get more information about the source of the documents. Ultimately, Lieutenant Colonel Burkett told Mapes on either September 4 or 5 that he had received the documents from another former Texas Army National Guardsman, Chief Warrant Officer George Conn.

….Mapes told the Panel that Lieutenant Colonel Burkett told her that Chief Warrant Officer Conn, if contacted by Mapes, would not confirm that he had provided the documents to him. Mapes said that she attempted to call Chief Warrant Officer Conn at an address in Texas, but was unable to contact him. Mapes added that it was her understanding that he was living in Germany, but she did not try to locate him in Germany.

(Note: the background on all this is extremely complex. If you want to catch up, background on Bill Burkett is here, background on George Conn is here, and background on the Killian memos is here.)

Put plainly, this account is simply beyond belief. At the time the 60 Minutes segment was aired last September, Burkett had already spent years peddling a story about George Bush’s National Guard files being “scrubbed.” He had talked to hundreds of reporters about it. I myself talked to him for two hours back in February. He was manically anti-Bush, and if he had had any incriminating documents it’s inconceivable that he would have held them back until September.

Keeping that background in mind, here’s what happened: Burkett first said he got the memos anonymously, and then, after much prodding, changed his story and said he had gotten them from a former National Guard friend, George Conn. That change of story alone should have set off alarm bells. But there’s more: Conn is about the least likely source imaginable for these memos.

Burkett and Conn had worked together at the Texas Guard in 1997 and both had left in 1998. But Killian died in 1984. How did Conn have access to Killian’s personal memos 14 years later? And even if he did, did Conn filch the documents in 1998 but not tell Burkett about them, even though he knew Burkett was intensely interested? And did he then keep them secret for six full years, even though he knew that his friend Burkett was desperately trying to convince the world of Bush’s mendacity during this entire time?

And that’s not all: not only did Conn supposedly keep the memos secret all this time ? a period during which he publicly disparaged Burkett’s “scrubbing” story several times ? but Burkett’s story implies that Conn suddenly reversed course in March and, for no apparent reason, finally told Burkett about the documents. But even then he didn’t turn over originals, which could have been easily verified. Only copies! And then Burkett decided to wait six months before showing them to anyone! This yarn is so nonsensical to anyone who had been following this story that it should have set off ear splitting klaxons. And to top it off Burkett told the CBS reporters not to even try to contact Conn to verify the story! And then warned them to be careful verifying the memos, even though they were supposedly from a trusted colleague. The klaxons should have been shattering eardrums at that point.

A child would be suspicious of this story ? and Burkett later admitted it wasn’t true. But in the end, even though Conn was allegedly the source of the documents, and even though this made no sense at all, no one at CBS tried to contact him in Germany. Why? I talked to Conn for 20 minutes when I was researching this stuff in February. If I could get hold of him, why couldn’t they?

I don’t know how well I’m explaining all this, but trust me: the idea that George Conn was the source of these documents beggars belief. To then accept their authenticity without talking to Conn and despite qualms from at least one document expert, is mind boggling. To later describe Burkett as an “unimpeachable” source takes you straight off into the gamma quadrant.

This story should never have seen the light of day. It was a travesty of journalism.

So why do I have mixed feelings? There are a few reasons.

First, because Atrios has a point when he compares this to other media scandals. Plenty of other people have peddled plenty of worse stuff and gotten practically no attention for it. It’s only when conservatives start yelling about “liberal bias” that it becomes a cause celebre. This is a tiresome double standard.

Second, because Dan Rather has led a distinguished career and doesn’t deserve to be tarred with this as his defining moment.

And third, because it’s pretty clear that the reason the story was aired wasn’t due to liberal bias, it was because of a far more prosaic journalistic sin: wanting to beat the competition. The CBS producers were afraid USA Today was going to break the story and they wanted to break it first. What’s more, conservatives who complain that the report exonerated Rather of bias but didn’t do the same for the blogosphere are being deliberately disingenuous. Blogs freely admit they’re partisan, so of course the report acknowledged that.

In the end, though, all this is just a coda to a miserable, miserable story. In the end, there’s no defense for what CBS did.

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