Accuracy in Media

While the media were abuzz over the release of the independent review panel report on CBS’s  “memogate” scandal,  another CBS scandal was emerging. 

Coinciding with the release of the CBS report was the release of the January cover story, “Tin Soldier,” in the Columbia Journalism Review, strongly suggesting that 60 Minutes Wednesday used phony Al Qaeda videotapes in its 2002 segment “Heart of Darkness.”  Dan Rather narrated the segment.

The powerful Columbia Journalism Review (CJR) story was written by Mariah Blake. It follows and credits another expos?, “Operation Desert Fraud, by Stacy Sullivan in the New Yorker. Both stories say that a key CBS source was a criminal and a fraud.

The source was former U.S. Special Forces soldier Jonathan Keith Idema, who has an extensive criminal background. His latest conviction was in 2004 on counts of operating an illegal prison in Afghanistan and torture. In January 2002 Idema sold the famous “VideoX” tapes to CBS.  The tapes purport to show Al-Qaeda camps in action and included 7 hours of footage. Dan Rather went to Afghanistan to report on site and the tapes became the foundation of a “bombshell” 60 Minutes II segment.

But Tracy-Paul Warrington, former deputy commander of a Special Forces counter-terrorism team and a civilian intelligence analyst for the Defense Department, told CJR, “In a nutshell, the videotapes are forgeries.” Warrington said the tactics shown had been abandoned by Al Qaeda, and that the area where the footage was supposedly filmed was under coalition control.

CJR notes that a 1995 60 Minutes piece based on information from the same controversial source, Idema, and a companion story in U.S. News & World Report, won an award from Investigative Reporters and Editors, Inc. The segment was on nuclear smuggling and was called “The Worst Nightmare.” CJR said CBS cut any reference to Idema from the 1995 story because he was imprisoned for fraud by the time the story aired. But that didn’t prevent CBS and Dan Rather from continuing to use Idema as a source over the years. He has now become a nightmare for CBS, after CBS has already been through one harrowing experience.

The evidence shows that one news organization, CNN, did reject Idema as a source, after an analyst did a simple Google and LexisNexis search turning up Idema’s criminal record.

However, NBC, ABC, MSNBC, FOX and the BBC all used Idema in some fashion. Either they used Idema’s phony footage or they used him as a source or commentator. But it’s  CBS’s misconduct, coming in the wake of the CBS report on the “Rathergate” scandal, that should receive the most attention. There is a pattern of misbehavior here.

Perhaps we should call it “Rathergate II.” But it looks like any number of scandals will not get Rather fired from CBS. He will be permitted to remain in his anchor chair until March and then he will continue pulling down millions of dollars from CBS, doing more stories on 60 Minutes. He is the teflon anchorman.

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