CBS has been blown off stride by its own bombshell, joining several major news organizations that trusted the network’s claim that it finally had the goods on President Bush.
All were essentially bested by Internet bloggers.
Led by anchorman Dan Rather, CBS reported in a “60 Minutes” broadcast Wednesday that it had obtained four old memos asserting that Mr. Bush did not fulfill his National Guard obligations three decades ago — lobbing the claim just as Sen. John Kerry was continuing to sink in public-opinion polls.
NBC, ABC, the New York Times, The Washington Post, the Boston Globe and others pounced on the story, heralding it as the smoking gun that would once and for all discredit Mr. Bush.
“[He] failed to carry out a direct order,” The Post noted flatly in a front-page story Thursday, citing “documents obtained by CBS” as its source.
Much of the media had “no reticence about plowing forward and repeating CBS’s loaded charges that they proved President Bush received preferential treatment and disobeyed an order to complete a physical,” Brent Baker of the Media Research Center, a media monitoring group, said yesterday.
The enthusiasm for “Memogate” paled, however, before the persistence of suspicious Internet bloggers and the increasingly powerful amplification loop of alternative press organizations.
“It was like a ‘perfect storm’ that put us here,” said Scott Johnson, the Minnesota-based lawyer behind www.powerlineblog.com, one of several Web sites that questioned CBS’ claims through the kind of simple detective work once common to old-fashioned journalism.
Mr. Johnson and fellow debunkers at indcjournal.com, littlegreenfootballs.com, cnsnews.com, freerepublic.com and the Weekly Standard analyzed the typeface from the memos to find they were contemporary in origin, proving them likely fakes. The news was picked up by the Drudge Report and talk radio — and a huge audience.
Yesterday found the big press backtracking, and hiring its own “experts.”
The documents “include several features suggesting” they had been forged, The Post explained in another front-page story.
“This has the earmarks of a fraud. If someone from CBS would explain why the issues we’ve raised are erroneous, I’d be the first to admit we’re mistaken. But no one has stepped up,” Mr. Johnson said.
“The fact CBS was willing to go through all this is a sign of desperation,” said John Hinderaker, another contributor to Powerlineblog.com. “They see the Kerry campaign sinking beneath the waves.”
CBS continues to stand by its story, as is Mr. Rather, who said it was based on “solid sources” and under attack by “partisan political operatives” on last night’s broadcast of “CBS Evening News.”
“Did somebody dupe CBS and Dan Rather, the pillars of mainstream [television] media?” asked CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, who interviewed Mr. Rather about his claims.
“If this is a hoax, it’s a huge story, right on the heels of the Jayson Blair matter,” Mr. Blitzer said, referring to the New York Times reporter who was fired for falsifying stories. “It would be humiliating for CBS — but we simply don’t know yet. This is going to take some more digging.”
Others were blunter. “This is what happens when a news organization operates in a bubble — a comfy liberal elite bubble,” former CBS reporter Bernard Goldberg told Ratherbiased.com, a Web site devoted solely to monitoring Mr. Rather. “They wanted the story to be true, so they apparently minimized or ignored any information that contradicted their preconceived notions.”
Contact Jennifer Harper at firstname.lastname@example.org or 202/636-3085.