Accuracy in Media

As Dan Rather prepares to step down as anchorman of the CBS Evening News, latest indications are that nothing has really changed at the network and nothing will change. Despite the reported housecleaning stemming from the “Rathergate” phony-documents scandal, also known as Memogate, the newscast still refuses to correct basic and documented errors of fact. Business as usual continues at CBS.

On January 12th, just two days after the release of the “independent” report on Memogate, when you would have thought that CBS would have had their fact checkers and proofreaders working overtime, came this gaffe: as part of their Fallen Heroes feature on the CBS Evening News, in which they talk about someone who has died in the war on terror, with sad music playing in the background, Dan Rather introduced Sergeant Joseph Guerrera. While showing his picture and a graphic that showed he was an Army pfc., age 20, Rather said, “He was just four when his father was killed in the Vietnam War. Guerrera started wearing his dad’s dog tags and decided he wanted to be a soldier too.” After giving information about his death, the report highlighted another picture and a graphic showing he was born in 1983 and died in 2003. To the best of our recollection the war in Vietnam ended in 1975. You do the math. This was pointed out to us by one of our grassroots watchdogs, Mr. R. Baker, who wrote that “Rather has politicized these casualties from the start by attempting to draw a correlation to Vietnam, and again he went way over the line.”

In a new case, also disclosed here for the first time, CBS News is refusing to admit that Rather grossly inflated casualty figures from Iraq in a January 31 broadcast. He said 25,000 to 30,000 U.S. troops had been “injured” in Iraq when the actual figure was less than half of that.

Linda Mason, who has been named Senior Vice President for Standards and Special Projects, refused to admit to AIM that Rather had made any mistake at all. Instead, her response was that Rather got it right two weeks later. The CBS practice seems to be that, if CBS gets it right once, that eliminates the need to correct the record when it gets the same facts wrong.

This case was brought to our attention by Veronica Sabloff, a viewer of the CBS Evening News, who says, “If CBS News/Rather can’t even get something like this right, what else have they been wrong/inaccurate about?”

The issue of media coverage of killed and wounded soldiers in Iraq is an important one. In response to a report that the active-duty U.S. Army missed its recruiting target for February by 27.5 percent, Defense Department spokesman Lawrence DiRita said there were a number of factors contributing to the recruiting shortfalls, including “prominent media coverage of casualties in Iraq.” DiRita said the coverage was a factor in parents not encouraging young men and women to join the military service.

Putting it more bluntly, the liberal media know they can undermine the war effort by emphasizing the human cost, without emphasizing the just cause for which they died. The long-term benefits to the U.S. and the world from freedom and democracy in the Middle East do not get highlighted. The prospect of the U.S. suffering more dead and wounded civilians from terrorist attacks if we do not win militarily in Iraq is an issue that doesn’t register in the coverage of the war. Our soldiers understand it, even if our media do not.   

A more serious related problem is the inflation of the number of casualties. In his January 31 broadcast, Rather referred to “25,000 to 30,000 others injured” in Iraq, in addition to the “1400-plus?American servicemen and women who’ve died there.” When AIM asked for a correction of the figure of U.S. wounded, Mason’s letter pointed to Rather’s report on the February 18 evening news program that the number was almost 11,000. That figure, she said, “is from the Pentagon wounded numbers, including soldiers who return to battle after being injured and those who are sent home.”

Of course, the 11,000 figure stands in sharp contrast to the “25,000 to 30,000” figure that Rather used on January 31. But the figure of “almost 11,000” is itself misleading. Of that number, 5,074 returned to duty within 72 hours. A total of 5,255 had not returned to duty. So, even with the more recent lower figure that he used on the air, Rather is not making it clear to the viewing audience that about half of them are not out of action.

What about correcting the “25,000 to 30,000” figure? Mason’s letter to AIM made it clear that nothing will be done about that. She simply ignores the problem, as if it will just fade away or people will not pay attention.

This is a big disappointment. Mason was appointed to her new position by Leslie Moonves, chairman and CEO of CBS, in the wake of the release of the panel report into the “Rathergate” scandal. Moonves said that Mason would be “an integral part of the re-vitalization of CBS News after this difficult time.” Yet she is prepared to leave uncorrected Rather’s statement that “25,000 to 30,000” were injured in Iraq simply because he got it right on a later date. So much for revitalizing CBS News.

Rather is not the only one to use the much higher figure. Interestingly, Flavia Colgan, a Democratic Party strategist and MSNBC analyst, used the 30,000 injured figure on the Scarborough Country show. When asked to justify this exaggeration, she said she got the figure from a CBS 60 minutes program, “Iraq: The Uncounted,” which aired last November and suggested that the Pentagon was covering up casualty figures.

The story, narrated by correspondent Bob Simon, reported that, in addition to the more than 10,000 injured in Iraq, more than 15,000 troops with non-battle injuries, including diseases, stress, and heart problems, had been evacuated from Iraq. Most importantly, however, the show acknowledged that non-battle injuries were not included in casualty reports in other recent wars. So the purpose in using these figures in coverage of the Iraq war has some other purpose. The purpose, quite obviously, is partisan and political―to make the human carnage on the battlefield appear much worse than it really is, to undermine public support for the war, and damage President Bush’s policy. Such a story is what we have come to expect from CBS News.

It’s possible that Rather, like Democratic Party operative Colgan, had based his exaggerated statement about the wounded in Iraq on the same CBS 60 Minutes program.  However, Mason did not defend his statement on that basis. Instead, she referred to the February 18 broadcast and its lower figure as constituting a correction of the record.

Whatever the basis for Rather’s controversial assertion, the failure to issue a straightforward correction is another example of how CBS News has not learned its lesson from “Rathergate.” Rather is leaving the broadcast, but the same curious news practices―and agenda―remain.

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