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March 20, 2005

Six Things You Probably Didn't Know About the Rather Commission

Final Update: So I spent some time tonight reviewing the end of the Killian scandal and looking into CBS's report myself. My conclusion, for what little it's worth, is that Goodall's article (which I summarized in the post) was misleading, if not wrong. Anyway, my original piece follows the jump, so you can read it there. Goodall's analysis is interesting as a review of CBS's report itself, but not reliable as a guide to the controversy over the documents.

I know Rather is old news, older, as he might say, than a fossilized pig in a time machine en route to the future. But a funny thing happened on the way to Rather's retirement -- a report was issued documenting his (mis)behavior and laying out the case against the documents he used. But the report was rarely read, most of us simply assumed its content, allowed the right to high-five about the wedgie they gave the newsman, and returned to blathering about Social Security. So, with the help of this excellent NY Review of Books article by James Goodall, here's what you may not have known about the Rather Report:

• The report never took a position on whether the documents were forged. It concluded, essentially, that it was impossible to know. The criticism leveled at Rather and CBS was that the network failed to hire appropriate experts for the documents and did not adequately establish a "chain of custody".

• CBS hired four experts to verify the documents. Two, James Pierce and Marcel Matley, signed off. Two others, Emily Will and Linda James, had reservations. Of the two who green-lighted the memos, both stick by their original conclusions. Of the two who refrained, James said that without the original documents, authenticity was impossible to establish, and Will said the signatures did not seem to match. Pierce and Matley both believed the signatures were genuine. So two verified, one abstained, and one disagreed.

• The commission investigating the matter did not, despite claiming that this was CBS's mistake, hire independent experts to verify or disprove the documents. One imagines that an ironclad, or even substantial, case against them would have compelled the panel to administer just such a coup de grace.

• Establishing a chain of custody, which is a list of who had the documents and when, stretching back to their creation, would make most investigative journalism impossible. Any documents that powerful parties don't want you to have would be immediately denied, or sued for, when past possessors desperate to keep them secret were notified of the leak. Notifying them, however, would be the only way to establish if the chain is true. Under these rules, The Pentagon Papers would never have been published.

• Rather himself was apparently uninvolved in the authentication of the documents. He relied on his producer, Mary Mapes. And yet he took the fall. If the president exhibited the same sense of honor and responsibility, he would have resigned after Abu Ghraib, and committed Hari Kari after the Duelfer Report.

• Mapes authenticated the documents by meshing them with known events from Bush's military history, which she verified through documents obtained via FOIA requests. Everything fit. The panel believes only three of the six documents fit perfectly, another fit okay, another not so good, and the last, not at all. All judgments were shaky and the panel conceded that "there is nothing in the official Bush records that would rule out the authenticity of the Killian documents."

There's more, and you should read the whole thing (as per usual), but that, I think, suffices to shred the assumptions a lot of us held. We don't know the memos were fake. Nothing proved that they were fake. The experts who believed in them never recanted. They fit with Bush's history. Nothing in his history disproved a single one. The worst you could say about CBS is that they took too long to address doubts about the memos, but have you yet heard Bush step on stage and admit that our rationale for war was completely incorrect?

Yeah. Me neither.

Update: While giving myself a refresher course on the Rather memos this evening (it's amazing what you'll do when you don't want to study for finals), I came across Kevin's opinion on the CBS Report from back in January. While Goodall focuses on what it said about the memos, Kevin zeroes in on its reconstruction of the chain of custody and concludes that "the story should never have seen the light of day". So there ya go, can't get a straight opinion on anything in this damn tale.

March 20, 2005 in Media | Permalink

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Comments

Not that it's material to your excellent story, but it's Hara Kiri, rather than Hari Kari. Just saying...

Posted by: D. | Mar 20, 2005 9:41:04 PM

As far as I am concerned, Rather's greatest sin was failing to recognize, when the doubts about authenticity became apparent, that if the documents were forged the most likely source of the forgeries was an agent of George Bush. How Rather (and Mapes) could ignore the possibility that this was a blatant attempt to discredit Killian is beyond me. How they continue to do so is beyond me.


And I thought it was seppuku.

Posted by: space | Mar 20, 2005 9:51:21 PM

"It concluded, essentially, that it was impossible to know."

True, but that is wrong on the face of it. It is quite possible to know, and exhaustive analyses were done, covering in gory detail arcana like kerning and proportional type. There is no way a document from the seventies could match up with a document from MS Word. It just can't be done.

" The commission investigating the matter did not, despite claiming that this was CBS's mistake, hire independent experts to verify or disprove the documents."

I wonder why not. That would be the obvious move to make; unless, that is, you don't want to know...

Sorry Ezra, but the report was not "ignored" on the Right. It was read, analyzed, and eviscerated as a whitewash. I'd dig up links, but it's late in New York and I'm tired. Cheers!

Posted by: Mastiff | Mar 20, 2005 11:48:15 PM

I'm not entirely sure why anyone thinks it'd be impossible, in any way, to make a Word document match a typewriter document. Indeed, if that was true, it'd be entirely possible to definitively "solve" the authenticity of the documents. Of course, no experts have been able to do that. Of the four mentioned here, 2 think the documents are legit, one thinks it's impossible to know, and one thinks they're likely not. "Hindrocket" and "Big Trunk" can scream forever, but that doesn't make it true.

And Oren? Go look into the arguments over kerning and proportional type. I'm sure you can link me to many a site explaining how they disprove the documents, but go run some searchs at www.washingtonmonthly.com or www.dailykos.com, the counterarguments are as persuasive as the attacks. That's why the issue is up for debate.

Posted by: Ezra | Mar 21, 2005 12:00:07 AM

By the way, I should probably be clear in that I believe they were fake (and was, oddly enough, excerpted in USA Today arguing that). But the point really isn't what I believe. Blog triumphalism has made the Rather Report something that it isn't and declared the documents false with a sense of assurance we simply can't have. There were a lot of clever typographical analyses on each side, but our amateur sleuths know very little, in the end. Some experts maintain the authenticity of the documents, some, like Killian's secretary, maintain the authenticity of their sentiment, and some dispute the whole damn thing. Which is fine. But let's not let what we don't know seep into what we do.

Posted by: Ezra | Mar 21, 2005 12:39:32 AM

After reading James Goodall, it seems to me that a higher standard of diligence and expertise was used in making the 60-minute segment than was used in thrashing, excuse me, independently reviewing it.

But then again, you don't need a tinfoil hat to see that the panel consisted of two Bush partisans and that the owner of CBS-parent Viacom has said:

I vote for Viacom. Viacom is my life, and I do believe that a Republican administration is better for media companies than a Democratic one.

Posted by: jasper emmering | Mar 21, 2005 9:32:23 AM

You know, I've always been pretty sure that the Killian memo was a forgery, but pretty much none of that fine-detail geekery about the typeface was particularly convincing to me since none of it was true.

It is cerrtainly not impossible for a typed document to match a Word document since Word was intended to emulate standard IBM typed documents in the first place.

However, just to be sure, I looked pretty carefully at the photocopy we were presented with and the allegedly "matching" Word document, and they did not, in fact, match. The characters were different - just that little bit different, just enough to make it clear that it was not the same at all.

Ultimately, the entire argument that they "match" is based on the supposition that there is something suspicious about matching line-height and margins, and there isn't. Word would naturally emulate standard line-heights and margins of the period - and yes, secretaries were indeed taught to standardize margins.

Yes, there were typewriters in use by government agencies at that time that could have produced that identical document. And yes, it is certainly possible that at some point Killian found someone other than his secretary to produce that document on a machine his secretary did not have. But we simply have no way of knowing whether this happened.

Posted by: Avedon | Mar 21, 2005 9:53:43 PM

It wasn't Killian's secretary who was interviewed about the veracity of the sentiments, but the commanding officer, who is no longer with us. Can't remember his name (Burke?), but he would have been the one to have dictated memos like these.

Posted by: hamletta | Mar 22, 2005 3:07:33 AM

"hara kiri" and "seppuku" are two different readings of the same Japanese characters for the same form of ritual suicide. I don't know who this Harry Carrey guy is....

Posted by: Jonathan Dresner | Mar 22, 2005 3:48:53 AM

Rush to judgment on Drum's part, I think; weird, given how much time he spent on the issue, but he does like to be reasonable.

I couldn't believe, when I read Goodall's article, that the report condemned CBS for suggesting that Bush chose the Guard to avoid Vietnam, with Bush's disgusting "I chose to better myself" on the record. Why should anyone pay attention to the rest of the report, when it includes such pathetic favor-currying?

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Posted by: peter.w | Sep 15, 2007 4:44:51 AM

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