- The Washington Times - Monday, September 20, 2004

Dan Rather said yesterday that he no longer had the “confidence in these documents that would allow [CBS] to continue vouching for them journalistically.” He went on to apologize: “We made a mistake in judgment, and for that I am sorry.” Unfortunately, Mr. Rather’s apology rightly could be described as “too little too late.”

The past week-and-a-half has been a case study in the way in which arrogance, mixed with a shallow regard for one’s audience, tainted an entire news organization. Insofar as it is an apology, Mr. Rather omits to mention that in the face of a vast preponderance of contrary evidence, he and his company refused to even acknowledge the critics’ points, instead choosing to label them “partisan political operatives.” How this could be considered acting in “good faith,” as Mr. Rather’s statement contends, is hilarity bordering on absurd.

But apologizing isn’t Mr. Rather’s sole intention here. In its following statement, CBS News said that former Texas National Guard official Bill Burkett “acknowledged that he provided the now-disputed documents” and “admits that he deliberately misled the CBS News producer [Mary Mapes] working on the report, giving her false account of the documents’ origins to protect the confidentiality to the actual source.” This doesn’t excuse CBS News or Ms. Mapes, who has been following the Bush Guard story for years. Indeed, it’s a measured tactic to shift blame away from Mr. Rather.

For her part, Ms. Mapes should have been more wary of the motives of Mr. Burkett, who is an unabashed critic of the Bush administration. In the past, Mr. Burkett has claimed to have overheard members of the Texas National Guard office in which he worked talk about “sanitizing” Mr. Bush’s Guard records, in preparation for the then-governor of Texas’ re-election campaign. When Mr. Burkett became sick in 1998 after a trip to Panama, he was denied medical attention by the military, which he blames on Mr. Bush. In an online story about the incident, Mr. Burkett wrote: “I was a pawn then caught in a struggle for right and wrong, but also caught within a political struggle between a man who would do anything to be ‘king’ of America and an institution of laws that we knew as America.” Whatever the truth to Mr. Burkett’s claims, he is hardly the kind of source an independent journalist should use to corroborate a story on the president of the United States. Nevertheless, CBS News bet their story on Mr. Burkett’s credibility.

Mr. Burkett’s lawyer, David Van Os, denies that his client had anything to do with the forgeries, as he wrote in a letter to the American Spectator. Still, Mr. Burkett’s involvement in pushing the memos is undeniable. In late August, as The Washington Post reports, Mr. Burkett contacted former Sen. Max Cleland about going on the “counterattack,” referencing the attacks by the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth on Mr. Kerry’s Vietnam record. “I asked if they wanted to counterattack or ride this to ground and outlast it,” Mr. Burkett wrote in an Aug. 21 Web posting. “[Mr. Cleland] said counterattack. So I gave them the information to do it with. But none of them have called me back.” According to The Post, Mr. Cleland acknowledges the conversation took place, but said he told Mr. Burkett to go directly to the Kerry campaign. CBS News obtained the memos on Sept. 3 and ran with the story on the Sept. 8 edition of “60 Minutes II.”

At this point, an apology is fine, but it must be followed promptly with a full investigation and public report on the entire chain of custody of the forged documents. The current question remains: Whodunit?

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