Accuracy in Media

Trying to dig himself out of the “Rathergate” mess at CBS News, White House correspondent John Roberts is telling his critics that he didn’t know that the documents he provided to the White House about the president’s National Guard service were questionable and came from a dubious source, Bill Burkett. Accuracy in Media (AIM) says that Roberts, who is said to be in the running for Dan Rather’s job, is deeply implicated in the “Rathergate” scandal that has just been examined by the two-person “independent panel” appointed by CBS.

AIM notes that Roberts was the personal representative of CBS News in a meeting with White House communications director Dan Bartlett, at a critical time when CBS News was developing its fake “story.” In the meeting with Roberts, Bartlett was told that he was supposed to confirm or deny authenticity of the National Guard documents that turned out to be bogus. When Bartlett did not immediately denounce them as forgeries, Roberts provided that information to 60 Minutes producer Mary Mapes, as if Bartlett had verified the documents as authentic. This was seen as the critical green light for Mapes (and Dan Rather) to go ahead with the bogus story.”

Bartlett later explained that CBS News provided documents that CBS News had said had “come from the personal file of a former commander” in the National Guard and that Roberts expected Bartlett “to authenticate them.” The White House received the documents only three and one-half hours before Bartlett was interviewed by Roberts about them. Bartlett commented that “CBS had the obligation to authenticate them before they were used. They could have also given them to the White House much earlier so we had more time to verify them as well.”

AIM Editor Cliff Kincaid commented that, “John Roberts was in a position to stop this fraudulent story before it aired. He did not.”

The new panel report sheds some light on this controversy, noting that Roberts told CBS that the Bartlett interview had “gone well and that he had not disputed the authenticity of the documents?” The panel said “this reaction” by Roberts and CBS “seriously misplaced responsibility for making sure that the documents were authentic.”

So John Roberts, the likely successor to Dan Rather, was guilty of helping to perpetrate this journalistic fraud.

Roberts disagrees, saying in an email that “I should point out that at the time I interviewed Dan Bartlett, I was NOT AWARE that the documents had come from Bill Burkett.  In fact, I did not find out that particular gem of information until I read about it in Newsweek magazine some time later. I was never informed by Mary Mapes at any time of the source of the documents – a point I made clear to the Thornburgh/Boccardi investigating panel. Your claims that I ‘was in a position to stop this fraudulent story before it aired’ are misinformed at best.”

AIM editor Kincaid responded that, “Roberts should have known—or should have asked—about the source of the documents. But it didn’t really matter if Roberts knew where the documents came from or not. The main problem was that the White House received the documents only three and one-half hours before Bartlett was interviewed by Roberts about them. That was unfair and Roberts knew it. He should have refused to play a role in this ambush. Not only did he play a role in this attack, he then told Mapes & Company that the Bartlett interview, such as it was, went well! He should be held accountable for his role in the scandal. Pleading ignorance is hardly a defense.”

Kincaid said it is clear that Roberts wanted to be part of the CBS story that was intended to politically damage President Bush and prevent his re-election. Roberts should not be able to get out of this by claiming he was just a gopher for Dan Rather and Mary Mapes and didn’t know what he was doing.

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