Politics & Policy

Red Flags Over West 57th

CBS has a stilted history of covering presidential candidates and Vietnam.

By now, Dan Rather–fiercely standing by his testimony, nervous eyes darting around the set–looks like a tobacco-company CEO still denying to Congress that studies have proven nicotine is addictive. He looks like the caricature of one of those classic cornered corporate titans on 60 Minutes who Martin Short parodied during his turn on Saturday Night Live, defending against the charges of defective whoopee cushions.

By now, it’s counterproductive to declare that the question is still open on the authenticity of CBS’s supposed Jerry Killian memos. Bad faith erupts from every nook and cranny of the 60 Minutes story. Last night, ABC’s Brian Ross found two more document authenticators hired by CBS who discovered immediate problems with the supposed National Guard documents. “I found five significant differences in the questioned handwriting, and I found problems with the printing itself as to whether it could have been produced by a typewriter,” said Emily Will, a North Carolina document examiner. She says she urged CBS not to use the documents. “I did not feel that they wanted to investigate it very deeply,” Will told ABC.

Under probing by the Washington Post yesterday and the retractions by “spiritual handwriting” expert Marcel Matley, CBS spokeswoman Sandy Genelius tried to suggest the consensus of experts is somehow not landing firmly against CBS. “In the end, the gist is that it’s inconclusive.” That sounds like a shift in the CBS spin from “we stand by our story” to “we stand by our confusion.” On air Monday, Dan Rather was stripped to claiming, “CBS used several techniques to make sure these papers should be taken seriously. Talking to handwriting and document analysts and other experts who strongly insist that the documents could have been created in the ’70s.” Falling back on the could-have-maybe line of defense does not inspire confidence.

The assumption of credibility and factual authority has been surrendered by CBS. At the very least, CBS should be required to produce originals of these documents for analysis before their authenticity can even be debated at this point. Treating this entire scandal like a question mark after all these layers of deception and manipulation have been peeled away is only a little less ridiculous than pretending the jury was still out on Bill Clinton’s intern indiscretions after the blue dress was tested.

One of the red flags on this scandal for everyone outside CBS is the network’s track record on investigating the military records of other candidates for president. In 2000, CBS had next to zero interest in Al Gore’s mysterious history during his brief service in Vietnam, including his discussions with old CBS nemesis Gen. William Westmoreland.

In 1999, Newsweek’s Bill Turque found a Gore friend who said Gore “met twice that spring with the former commander of U.S. forces in South Vietnam to discuss Gore’s options. Westmoreland guaranteed no cushy deals, according to Gore’s friend, but left him with one sweeping assurance: ‘I believe he will be watched,’ the general said. ‘He will be cared for.’” Later, Turque added: “The two met during the general’s visit to [Fort] Rucker in 1970, and Gore has intimated over the years that the general encouraged him to go. According to Michael Zibart, a Nashville friend, Gore said that Westmoreland told him he ‘would be making a grave error if he didn’t serve in Vietnam.’”

CBS made an enormous deal out of Dan Quayle’s connections to power in Indiana during the 1988 campaign, and is now putting its reputation on the line about George W. Bush’s connections to power in Texas. How did CBS explore Al Gore’s going straight to the top of the Vietnam command structure to make connections? They didn’t. Put “Gore” and “Westmoreland” into the Nexis file of CBS transcripts, and you get “no documents.” When 60 Minutes profiled Gore on December 5, 1999, Lesley Stahl merely mentioned in passing: “Everybody expected him to follow his father’s footsteps into politics, but he rebelled. After a tour of duty in Vietnam, he worked for four years as a reporter at the Nashville Tennessean. During that time he also enrolled in Divinity School here at Vanderbilt University.” She then asked him about religion.

The main reason for Vietnam mentions in CBS’s Gore coverage in 2000 was speculation over whether Gore would select “decorated Vietnam veteran” John Kerry as his running mate. In a Gore biography during the Democratic convention that year, reporter Richard Schlesinger skimmed over the subject: “Gore served five months in Vietnam as a combat journalist. But those who knew him best wondered whether his true motivation was to shield his father from critics during a bitter re-election campaign… . It didn’t help his father in any case. After 30 years, the senior Gore lost his coveted seat in Washington. To this day, Gore feels his father’s opposition to the war led to his defeat.”

In 1992, Dan Rather saw nothing but smears when a document emerged on February 12, a letter Bill Clinton wrote to his soon-to-be-forsaken ROTC commander Eugene Holmes that said “thank you…for saving me from the draft.” CBS was not happy. “Bill Clinton says President Bush’s 1988 Willie Horton crowd is smearing him with new campaign dirty tricks,” Dan Rather said over the show’s opening music. Later, he repeated: “In the presidential campaign, Democrat Bill Clinton says Bush-Quayle re-election forces are using a smear campaign to constantly raise questions about his past.” CBS had the most inaccurate story that night, referring to Clinton’s blaming the Republicans for leaking the letter four times, and carrying four accusatory Clinton sound bites. ABC, CNN, and NBC all correctly reported that night that the man who saved the letter, Clinton Jones, had sent the letter to ABC News, not to Republican officials. CBS had the greatest disparity among networks on draft-dodging allegations in the first ten days of the Quayle scandal in 1988 versus the Clinton scandal in 1992–18 stories on Quayle, compared with just two on Clinton.

When the Los Angeles Times revealed on September 2, 1992, that Clinton’s Uncle Raymond had finagled a Naval Reserve slot for Clinton, delayed his physical for nearly eleven months, and met with Sen. William Fulbright, Dan Rather’s show only aired one perfunctory Evening News story.

Even this year, when 60 Minutes profiled Kerry on January 25, Ed Bradley touted Kerry’s medals and brushed over Kerry’s wild and unsubstantiated 1971 Senate testimony by noting: “It’s still emotional after all these years. Vietnam is something that just doesn’t leave you.” Kerry said: “It’s young people dying young for the wrong reasons, because leaders don’t do the things that they should do to protect them.” Bradley replied: “Do you see a parallel with Iraq?”

It’s this tilted history of coverage of baby-boomer Vietnam service–pound the Republicans, defend the Democrats–that causes conservatives to roll their eyes when Dan Rather insists that his critics should be scorned as “partisan political operatives.” As if he and his CBS colleagues haven’t behaved an awful lot like partisan political operatives themselves, with their “news judgment” over the years.

Tim Graham is director of media analysis at the Media Research Center and an NRO contributor.

Tim GrahamTim Graham is Director of Media Analysis at the Media Research Center, where he began in 1989, and has served there with the exception of 2001 and 2002, when served ...

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