- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 18, 2004

It has been a tough time for journalists — a period when those who consider themselves serious and honest practitioners of the craft begin to wonder if they should be ashamed of what they do. To borrow an old line: “Don’t tell my mother that I’m a reporter. She thinks I’m a towel man in a bawdy house.”

What has one thinking that way lately is the onslaught of unsubstantiated rumors and innuendos and outright falsities surrounding the presidential election, some of it brought on by the candidates themselves and passed off as legitimate news.

From a notorious “gotcha” biographer’s unsupported allegations of drug abuse by George W. Bush to utterly discredited charges John Kerry lied about his Vietnam War record, there seems no end to the assault on journalistic ethics, if that isn’t an oxymoron.

Take the recent flap over Mr. Bush’s National Guard records that purport to show he was given favorable treatment and didn’t fulfill his duty. If anyone still doubts the decades-old documents weren’t produced by Microsoft Word or some other computer program not available at that time, there is a piece of real estate here at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. I will sell them at a very reasonable price.

The authenticity of the memos disclosed as a major scoop on “60 Minutes” has been challenged by any number of experts. Now even Dan Rather, who first broke the story, finally admits the memos are suspect after two consultants contacted by CBS before the show aired warned to no avail there were serious questions about them, and a third said he verified only the officer’s signature and not the text. He granted even that could have been pasted on before the memos were copied.

Mr. Rather’s concession — maybe that should read “confession” — finally came after the 86-year-old anti-Bush secretary of the National Guard officer alleged to have written them said they didn’t come from the typewriters she used. But she did say they expressed the sentiment of her late employer. With more gall then sense, Mr. Rather asks people to concentrate on that though the officer’s wife and son have disputed that assessment of the officer’s feelings about George Bush. Unbelievable.

Up to then, CBS’ response to the growing controversy has been an all-too-familiar one in the world of today’s 24-hour journalism. The network, through Mr. Rather, said it stands by its story, which translates into something like “Holy cow. We may be in trouble here, so we should stonewall as long as possible and maybe it will blow over. Besides, they can’t prove a thing one way or the other.” That, of course, has been standard procedure through the ages for “60 Minutes.”

This travesty is what happens when everyone is too eager to break the next scandal, particularly when the volatile atmosphere of the current campaign is mixed with the vicious competitiveness of electronic news.

Then there is the fringe journalism practiced by author Kitty Kelley, whose method is to conduct a lot of interviews, many with the promise of anonymity, read hundreds of clips and then produce a book that includes as fact every whispered latrine rumor she can find. The whole mess then gets passed off as legitimate biography despite the utter lack of depth and substantiation. The fact it was “unauthorized” and the subjects refused to “cooperate” is cited as validating it. When an inclusion is challenged by a source, her answer and that of her publisher is exactly the same as CBS’. They stand by the story.

Her main defense through several of these unflattering books about people such as Jacqueline Kennedy, Nancy Reagan and Frank Sinatra is always that a dozen lawyers have vetted her work and she has never been successfully sued.

Well, don’t be misled, folks. She writes only about the most vulnerable public persons. And under the Supreme Court’s New York Times vs. Sullivan decision rendered four decades ago, it is almost impossible in this country to libel a public figure.

Every reporter, print or electronic, around long enough is confronted with material that would be sensational if provable. Knowing the difference between what is and what isn’t is the key to maintaining the accuracy and fairness so crucial to honest journalism. Sometimes the lines get blurred and it is not easy. But in those cases, caution is the best policy.

The eagerness with which so much fiction is thrown about as fact these days is dismaying, even after 50 years of seeing it all. But then, this too will pass. It always has.

Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.

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