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Dan Rather’s Last Stand

Dan Rather and CBS News on Wednesday night came up with what looks like their final defense of the use of probably forged documents to discredit President Bush’s service in the National Guard. Rather said that the controversial documents may be “re-creations” of actual documents that he doesn’t have! 

The latest turn in the scandal is a clever ploy and shell game on the part of Rather and it may buy him some time. He’s trying to convince the public?and his colleagues in the press?that the real issue isn’t whether the documents are fakes but whether they convey the truth about Bush.

As a result of this new twist, the critics of CBS News who have been waiting for a Rather apology or firing may have to wait even longer?perhaps in vain. The ambiguous White House response to the documents?by refusing to denounce them and in fact providing them to news organizations?has enabled CBS News to put forward this dubious defense of what is clearly questionable conduct by a major news organization.

By any reasonable standard, CBS News failed to properly investigate the story before putting it on the air. In the week that has passed since the story aired, CBS News has been desperately trying to find various “experts” to add some weight or credibility to its objectionable conduct and conclusions.

But on Wednesday’s CBS Evening News and 60 Minutes, the scandal took a new turn when Rather interviewed Marian Knox, a secretary to the late Lt. Colonel Jerry Killian, Bush’s commander in the Texas Air National Guard and the purported author of the memos. Knox said the documents are fake and even pointed out several discrepancies in them. But she said the information in them is “correct.” 

The key exchange, from the CBS News standpoint, came here:

Rather: You say you didn’t type these memos?

Knox: Not these particular ones.

Rather: Did you type ones like this?

Knox: Yes.

Rather: Containing the same or identical information?

Knox: The same information, yes.

Just as quickly as Rather seemed to be admitting, by airing the Knox interview, that the documents are fakes, Knox says the information against Bush in the documents is correct.

Knox believes the CBS News story line about Bush evading his National Guard service and takes the curious position that the documents are accurate but fake. Rather, in his current desperate state, figures that it may have enough of a ring of truth to keep the story alive and buy more time for the network to stonewall the devastating charges of deception and cover-up from the growing number of critics. Simply put, Rather is trying to change the subject?from Dan Rather back to George W. Bush.

While many observers were expecting CBS News to face up to the evidence that the documents are fakes, Rather is saying that his story about Bush is still true, except for the fact that the documents he used on the air were the wrong ones! Viewers are now being led to believe that this is just a trivial detail when the documents were themselves put forward as the “smoking gun” against Bush.

Rather will not, at this point at least, admit outright that the documents are fakes. Indeed, he quoted from them again, to get Knox to make her point that while the documents may not be real, their information was true. But he is trying to move the public?and the press?beyond the issue of the alleged forgeries and back toward Bush.

This strategy seems to be working in some quarters. The far-left “Media Matters” organization is already claiming that the CBS News memos are “trivial” and beside the point. 

There may never be “definitive” evidence, as Rather once cleverly framed the controversy, to prove or disprove the validity of the documents. Because the documents are copies, an absolute case may not be made either way, unless the “source” or forger comes forward to admit the offense or is discovered. Some news organizations suspect the source may be a bitter ex-guardsman who had a nervous breakdown and has made unsubstantiated charges against Bush and his aides in the past.   

Even with such a revelation, however, one can anticipate Dan Rather defending his use of the apparently phony documents by saying that the forger had an honorable motive?to expose Bush’s alleged evasion of his National Guard service. That is the story that Dan Rather, driven by an anti-Bush bias, will not jettison.

The White House response, as it has always been, will be that Bush got an honorable discharge. CBS News seems to be standing by the story no matter what.