Front Page















Dan Rather's Blue Dress
September 20, 2004

By James L. Hirsen, J.D., Ph.D.
contributor to

It seems that Bill Clinton has something in common with Kenny Rogers. They both know when to hold'em and when to fold'em.

Back when Clinton was mired in his Lewinsky scandal and he was confronted with a certain piece of blue clothing, he cut the stonewalling. Dan Rather, on the other hand, continues to wallow in Watergate-like denial, despite the overwhelming evidence that the documents he presented to the nation were not just questionable. They were patently fake.

Rather is trying to sell the notion that it is somehow acceptable to forge the name of a dead man in order to smear a sitting president while in the midst of a war and a tight election to boot. What makes it okay? If the journalist in question trots out an octogenarian former secretary to say that although she believes the documents are "fake" she "feels" that the content of the documents are factual. Putting it in Dan-speak, CBS is attempting to sell the public more cow-pies than a dunghill at a cattle ranch.

It all began with a "60 Minutes II" broadcast, which presented documents to show that President George W. Bush received preferential treatment when he served in the National Guard. Rather's report claimed that the documents were from the personal files of Lt. Col. Jerry B. Killian, Bush's then-squadron commander. The report also stated that Killian had written that Bush used connections to avoid his military obligations.

At the time CBS claimed to have relied on some experts to determine the reliability of the documents. One of the experts was Marcel Matley. But Matley had only given a limited endorsement to the signature. He hadn't said anything about the validity of the document. Because the memos were copies, Matley in a later interview said, "There's no way that I, as a document expert, can authenticate them."

It just so happens that CBS never had the originals. And document examiners can't possibly authenticate a photocopy.

After the story aired, a whole bunch of forensic document experts began to surface. They were led by the bloggers on the Internet, who questioned the authenticity of the documents and pointed out that they were created on modern day word-processing software, rather than the IBM Selectric typewriters that were in use in the 1970s.

Soon two of the other CBS experts showed up on ABC News. They had revelations that were embarrassing to Rather & Company. It turns out that Emily Will had expressed unease about Killian's signature and the typography in the memos. And Linda James said that she had "cautioned" CBS, warning the network that other document examiners would see the same problems that she had. James told CBS that she couldn't rule out that the memos had been "produced on a computer."

It also turns out that none of these experts had prepared a written report before the segment was aired. And adding to Rather's quandary was the fact that Col. Walter B. "Buck" Staudt, the man who was cited in one of the memos as putting on the pressure to "sugarcoat" Bush's record, had retired from the service a year and a half earlier.

CBS hunkered down and tried to mount a defense. They trotted out more experts to declare that the documents didn't come from a computer printer. But the new set of authenticators told the press that they were not document examiners. They had very specialized expertise in computer typesetting technology and fonts. They were not certified by the American Board of Forensic Document Examiners, something that in a court case a seasoned lawyer would require.

Apparently, it was back to the drawing board. CBS brainiacs came up with a new theory that even if the papers were forged phonies, as long as the assertions in them might possibly be true, they were off the hook. So America watched as Rather asked leading questions of Marian Carr Knox, the 86-year-old former secretary of Lt. Col. Killian.

"I know that I didn't type them," said Knox, but she added that "the information in those is correct." Rather's follow-up questions failed to delve into how Knox had acquired that particular knowledge.

Predictably, Rather's peers, the blogosphere and the public weren't buying the idea that "fake but real" could be used to defend anything other than the stylishly pouty looking lips in Hollywood.

As CBS News continued in its effort to build a barrier against the mounting criticism, it took a page from some of the craftiest political spinners. It decided to try and blame the White House.

Reports from the Los Angeles Times indicated that although CBS news executives entertained serious doubts over the authenticity of the photocopied documents, their doubts were removed when they heard about a single conversation.

Here's what soothed the execs' doubts. John Roberts, CBS's White House correspondent and would-be successor to Rather, had done an on-camera interview with a presidential aide. During the interview, the aide didn't object to CBS's use of the documents.

The thing is, though, the aide was not in a position to know anything about the documents because they were supposedly from a third-party's private files.

Sorry CBS, but trying to shift the blame to the Bush White House sounds like a rejected script of a Simpson's episode, where Bart tries to blame Lisa for putting the whoopee cushion on Homer's recliner.

As the face of what used to be known as the "Tiffany Network," Rather just can't escape responsibility. He's been an anchor for longer than anyone in the network's history. So what should Rather do?

Well, for one thing he should reveal the source of the fake memos. Those who commit fraud, or a crime like forgery, forfeit any confidentiality owed by journalists to their sources.

And there's something else he should muse about. When NBC's Dateline used explosives to make it look as if the alleged flaws in the design of a truck caused the blast, the president of the NBC news division resigned.

And when a couple of writers from the New York Times and USA Today did a little fabricating, some high level editors did a little resigning.

We continue to listen to the ticking, waiting to see if and when the CBS eye blinks.

Reproduced with the permission of . All rights reserved

Copyright © 2004
James L. Hirsen, J.D., Ph.D.

All Rights Reserved