This editorial appears in the October 11, 2004, issue of National Review.
Twelve days after airing a story that questioned George W. Bush’s National Guard service–a story built on forged documents–CBS apologized. So did Dan Rather, personally. Now they should apologize for their apologies. They are still misleading the public, this time about their own conduct rather than that of the president.
The official line from CBS has it that the network had every reason to believe that the story was legitimate, and that it learned only after the broadcast that there were reasons to doubt the authenticity of the documents. The network was “misled.” Rather, hilariously, still insists that the documents are real, although he concedes that he cannot prove it. But the truth is that CBS had spoken to experts who doubted the documents’ authenticity before the broadcast. And a little due diligence would have made it clear that the documents were probably fake, and that Rather’s “unimpeachable source” was a disturbed individual with anti-Bush politics. Moreover, when outsiders, especially bloggers, began to raise questions after the broadcast, Rather’s reaction was to smear them as “partisan political operatives.” (These critics deserve an apology, too.) “If I knew then what I know now, I would not have gone ahead with the story as it was aired,” said Rather. We are entitled to assume that what Rather did not know then, and knows now, is merely that the story would embarrass and discredit him.
Rather has also attempted to argue that his story about Bush’s failing to do his duty with the Guard is true even if the documents were false. But this will not hold up. Allegations that Bush went AWOL have been around for a long time (and have been debunked in these pages by Byron York). It was the new evidence that CBS thought it had that made the story: the documents, and the testimony of Ben Barnes that he had gotten Bush into the Guard as a political favor. What’s left of that evidence? The documents were forged, and Barnes, a major financial supporter of Kerry and the Democrats, is a suspect source.
It is fashionable in some circles to dismiss the importance of the CBS scandal. With American lives being lost every week in Iraq, why dwell on one discredited story? It is true that the war raises the stakes of the election. It also makes it that much more significant that we have a national media that is bent on helping one of the campaigns, by fair means or foul.
CBS can begin to redeem itself by reporting on who forged the documents, and especially on whether the Kerry campaign was involved. And heads should roll, including the anchor’s.