- The Washington Times - Monday, September 13, 2004

Six days have passed since CBS News anchorman Dan Rather announced that he had obtained several obscure memos with proof that President Bush did not fulfill his National Guard obligations three decades ago.

Both the network and Mr. Rather remain adamant about this claim, first challenged by Internet bloggers, then an increasingly intrigued mainstream press. The buddy system that thrives among mostly liberal news organizations can weaken, apparently, when there’s an opportunity to join the fray of inquisitors.

In his column yesterday in the New York Times, titled “Those discredited memos,” William Safire traced the evolution of the story. “It may be that CBS is the victim of a whopping journalistic hoax, besmearing a president to bring him down. What should a responsible news organization do?”

Mr. Safire advised that a snarling challenge to critics “demeans the Murrow tradition,” and advised the network to “call for a panel of old CBS hands and independent editors to re-examine source and papers.”

What was inevitably dubbed “Memogate” by unimaginative clichemongers last week has since become “Rathergate,” as CBS and its anchorman have been second-guessed by the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, the Dallas Morning News and USA Today, among others.

But the network has not blinked.

“We absolutely, positively stand by our story,” CBS spokeswoman Sandy Genelius said yesterday. “Our producers will continue to research and report upon it. The story is still evolving.”

The 72-year-old Mr. Rather, she said, appears unconcerned about criticisms that got personal. “Oh, Dan’s just great. He’s been doing this for such a long time, and has weathered so many situations that he’ll just keep on keeping on.”

The network plans to examine the “authentication process” and offer another rebuttal to charges that the memos were forgeries, one broadcast source said yesterday.

In a six-minute feature on the “CBS Evening News” Friday, Mr. Rather insisted that his story was based on solid sources and complained of attacks by “partisan political operatives.”

Greg Mitchell of the trade publication Editor & Publisher is among those who remain unimpressed by the hubbub.

“The news media has performed very badly here,” he said yesterday, recounting his surprise Thursday when “so many newspapers reported the CBS claims as fact, with few qualifiers.”

He was equally surprised when the newspapers turned tail the following day and “went overboard reporting all the doubts and opinions about the memos from self-appointed experts … which got quoted as gospel.”

The situation — with its excruciating discussions about typefaces and superscripts — brought out the impatience of the press.

“Back in the bad old days,” Mr. Mitchell says, “newspapers would have sat on a story like this for two or three days and waited, judged. There was not the big pressure from TV-driven news to report on something every single day.”

The impact of such stories on readers and viewers ultimately is diluted if they witness “19 quick versions of the same thing. Sometimes, the most powerful thing you can do is wait on that story.”

Contact Jennifer Harper at [email protected]washingtontimes.com or 202/636-3085.

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