Accuracy in Media

If there is some lingering doubt as to whether or not the CBS News documents on President Bush’s service in the National Guard are fakes, the White House has itself partly to blame. It continues to act as if one or more of the documents may be legitimate. Considering the fact that the White House refuses to condemn the documents outright as forgeries, the media cannot be blamed for saying that the jury is still out. Clearly, however, the burden of proof is now on CBS News to validate the controversial documents.

USA Today reported that its own editors initially accepted them as legitimate in part because the White House “did not challenge the memos’ authenticity” and released copies of the documents to reporters. The White House, which was given copies of the documents by CBS, distributed them by e-mail to reporters. USA Today says it obtained copies of the documents independently, soon after the 60 Minutes segment aired on Wednesday, September 8, “from a person with knowledge of Texas Air National Guard operations.”

The administration may have given CBS News the benefit of the doubt, assuming that the documents provided by a major news organization were legitimate and deciding to release them so that other news organizations could make their own independent judgments. These other media organizations could, of course, have gotten the documents directly from CBS.

On the other hand, if the White House had refused to release them, saying their authenticity was in doubt, the administration would have been under pressure to prove they were fakes. That was a case it did not want to make. As it happened, bloggers, conservative news personalities and organizations, and several mainstream news organizations did stories questioning the documents. This part of the controversy, demonstrating the power of alternative media and competition among news organizations, has clearly played to the advantage of the White House.

The Washington Post reports that First Lady Laura Bush “became the first person from the White House to say the documents are likely forgeries.” Her charge was made on a radio show five days after CBS News cited the documents on 60 Minutes.

Yet, the White House continues to act as if one or more of them may be authentic. In a September 14 Washington Times story, Joseph Curl reports that White House communications director Dan Bartlett actually cited one of the disputed documents to rebut the accusation that Bush disobeyed a direct order to take a physical exam. While Bartlett cited the document to defend Bush, he said that he was making the assumption for purposes of discussion that it was authentic.

The Times quoted Bartlett as saying, “Even if you take the documents at face value and said that they were authentic, you can tell by one of the memos where it said that he talked to Bush about his flight exam. We obviously interpret that as he was working with his commanders on the very issue as to whether he needed to take it or not. He obviously ended up not taking it because he was not flying.”

Why is the White House citing information from an allegedly fake document to rebut charges in another of the allegedly fake documents? Why assume the documents are real when so many questions have been raised about them?

The Times then adds, “Mr. Bartlett said he had showed the documents?broadcast last week by CBS News and questioned by many analysts?to Mr. Bush ‘and he did not remember them.'” The purported memos, of course, were not intended for Bush, and he would have no reason to remember them. But he was obviously familiar with the facts of the case. This exchange raises the intriguing possibility that one or more of the documents may turn out to be fake but the information in them may be legitimate. Bartlett was certainly acting as if the information in them may be correct and therefore deserves a response.

The White House has to figure that the mysterious source who allegedly provided the documents to CBS News and USA Today could emerge, possibly with evidence of their authenticity, or perhaps other documents. On September 13, Dan Rather once again offered a defense of the documents, saying the news organization continues to believe they are authentic. But Rather and CBS News have taken such a beating from their colleagues that they may have to produce that source in order to salvage their own reputations.

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