In memory of Reed Irvine, founder of Accuracy in Media, AIM is awarding its first annual Reed Irvine Investigative Journalism award to two of the bloggers responsible for exposing Rathergate?Dan Rather’s use of forged documents to smear President Bush. This episode was a milestone in the history of journalism.
Former CBS and current CNN executive Jonathan Klein derided the bloggers as people “sitting in his living room in his pajamas writing.” No matter what they wore, however, they did the research that Rather didn’t. They made Rather, the “veteran” journalist, look like a fool.
One is an Atlanta lawyer, Harry MacDougald, who writes under the name “Buckhead” on FreeRepublic.com. He was the first to raise questions about the authenticity of the documents that CBS posted on its website the night of Dan Rather’s report on 60 Minutes Wednesday two months before the presidential election last year. From having read a manual explaining the computer program Microsoft Word shortly after it came out and was acquired by his law firm, he knew that the CBS documents couldn’t have been typed back in 1972, the year they were purported to have been written, because typewriters from that time weren’t capable of proportional spacing the way Microsoft Word does it automatically.
The other award winner is Paul Boley, an active Air Force officer from Montgomery, Alabama, who went by the handle “TankerKC.” He had the very first web-post attacking the memos while the 60 Minutes II program was still going on.
As AIM goes forward with our awards, there is some evidence that CBS may be coming to grips with the scandal. It’s about time.
Marcy McGinnis, CBS’s senior vice president for news coverage, recently spoke at McKendree College in Lebanon, Illinois. Her talk was entitled, “Can the News Really be Fair, Accurate and Objective?” Her answer is the same as ours: yes it can be, and it should be. But she is in the difficult position of having to defend CBS News in the aftermath of one of its more egregious scandals, Rathergate. Others call it Memogate.
The scandal at CBS involved the use of phony documents to make charges against President Bush regarding his Air National Guard service that were not only unsubstantiated, but contradicted by evidence and information known to CBS at the time.
McGinnis avoided the topic throughout her speech, but when asked during Q&A, she then addressed it. “It adversely affected CBS News as a whole,” McGinnis said. “It had a great impact on us. It’s never good when your credibility is challenged, and we defended the story too long. I had good friends fired over it, and even Dan took himself off because of it. To have something like that happen is devastating.”
McGinnis is a 35-year veteran at CBS and winner of multiple Emmy awards for news coverage. She knows how journalists should cover stories, and is clearly embarrassed by what happened. She calls the incident “an embarrassment for CBS News,” but pulls her punches when she said that Rather issued a statement apologizing for “a mistake in judgment.” She claims that changes have been made, presumably changes that would keep something like this from happening again.
The St. Clair County Journal and the Belleville News Democrat are the only papers that covered McGinnis’s speech, and the St. Louis Post Dispatch carried the Journal’s story on its website. But it deserves much wider attention. McGinnis offered other words of wisdom. She said that “Journalists must follow three traits: Be fair?be even handed to all parties; be accurate?hit the mark every time?and lastly, be objective?they must report from an unbiased viewpoint. If we as journalists keep these three ideals in mind when reporting, we can deliver unbiased news.”
McGinnis said her job is to pay “really close attention” to the news and to care about it. She said that “accurate and objective are not interchangeable but are interdependent.” And most importantly, she said that “Accuracy must come first. Fair and objective will flow outward from that.”
That was the message of AIM founder Reed Irvine. It’s too bad that Dan Rather didn’t take it to heart. Reed finished his time on earth with his head held high, a man of principle who told the truth. Rather is slinking away in disgrace.