Journalism

What Others’ Eyes See

123RF/CBS

CBS News has announced that it can no longer vouch for the authenticity of documents that they questioned Bush’s National Guard service. The controversy has united both political parties — briefly, to be sure — in a singleminded condemnation of “the media.”

But those of you who have read this journal for any length of time should know by now that I hate double standards. So I think it’s time to discuss a few of them.

CBS obtained the documents from a former National Guard commander who now admits that he intentionally misled the network about the source of the documents. He told Dan Rather over the weekend that he provided CBS with false information about the document’s source to ease some of the “pressure” being put on him by CBS News staffers who were demanding to know the source of the memos. He claims that he urged the network to authenticate the documents. Why CBS allowed the documents to be aired without the authentication, and why they were willing to trust the source so completely, remains to be explained.

On a personal note, during a good portion of my years in television, I was affiliated with CBS. They are pros. The news division has a solid reputation for a reason. They’re not bad people and not prone to making reckless mistakes. That does not mean, of course, that it can’t happen, as this situation proves. But this incident should not reveal an “overall picture” of operations at CBS News. That would be unfair, and I’d say the same thing if we were talking about ABC News or NBC News.

There is no question that errors were made in this case. My disclaimer out of the way, here are some “Devil’s Advocate” observations about the rampant criticism going on:

Some Republicans insist that Bill Burkett, the retired Texas National Guard officer who handed them the documents, must have a direct connection to the Kerry campaign, since a campaign official discussed “other issues” with Burkett just before the story aired. Yet these same people completely dismiss any connection between the Bush campaign and groups like the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, who they say are operating on their own. If we are to believe that the Kerry campaign was directly involved in getting this information on the air, how can we be so quick to dismiss the possibility of a connection between the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth and the Bush campaign?

Some Republicans want to know why CBS had allegedly supplied copies of the memos to the Bush administration and the Kerry campaign before the story aired. If it happened, it was done to get the two sides’ responses to the memos. This is hardly unreasonable in a journalistic sense, since both sides’ response to the documents (assuming they were real) would be newsworthy. Anyone would expect Bush to have a chance to respond to the documents. And anyone would expect Kerry — who has chosen to make military service such a major issue in this campaign — to respond as well. You can’t include such responses in your coverage if you don’t show them what you’re asking them to respond to in advance. That should be common sense.

Some Democrats are fuming because this controversy, they say, is focusing attention away from the “real” issue, which has nothing to do with the economy, the debt, or the War in Iraq; they’re angry because the all-important issue of Bush’s military service is taking the back seat here. Why is Bush’s limited service record so important so many years later? If you remind them (as the White House has) that Bush received an Honorable Discharge, you will likely be met with complaints that an Honorable Discharge means very little…that it is entirely possible to fail to meet your duty and still get one. If this is true, I should think that they would be demanding for a complete overhaul of military procedure. If they are, I haven’t found that call, yet. At the same time, they react angrily when anyone questions Kerry’s record, and insist that it is inappropriate to dispute whether Kerry deserved the awards he got in Vietnam. Apparently, only the Guard’s record keeping is lacking. How convenient.

Some Democrats are calling Bush an opportunist who must have taken advantage of special treatment, whether he asked for it or whether it was given to him based on requests from others, and that he has behaved, therefore, in a dishonorable way. Yet many of them back a politician who is using the tactic of questioning the lack of military service of his competitor — the same tactic he denounced when it was used against his party twelve years earlier — for his own gain. Is this not opportunistic as well? Should we not wonder if this is a case of him behaving dishonorably?

Finally, some Republicans insist that CBS intentionally set out to deceive. They are certain beyond any doubt that there is no way CBS could have made an “honest mistake” here. They believe that the information CBS had should have been subject to much more scrutiny before the story was published, and they believe that no matter how reliable CBS claims it thought the information and the source happened to be when it ran the story, the truth is CBS knew the information was suspect and acted anyway. I understand this line of reasoning from the diehard Republicans least of all because they defend Bush, who acted on intelligence information that has — at least so far — been proven unreliable, by saying he was acting on good faith. If we are to believe that Bush genuinely believed that there really were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq (whether there are or aren’t) and that he was acting only with the best of intentions to protect America, why are we so certain to rule out any possibility of an honest mistake on the part of CBS? Surely no one is going to sit back and say that a journalistic organization should have known better than to act without double-checking the facts, when we consider the price paid in human life on the other side of that coin.

Obviously the story should have been delayed until the documents had been more carefully reviewed. But beyond that simple fact, it would seem that your opinion of CBS News depends on your own political preference. I don’t happen to believe that CBS News intentionally set out to deceive, but that’s my opinion formed from my contact and dealings with them over the years. I think it’s perfectly acceptible to blame them for being too eager to air the story, but not for being a Kerry propaganda machine.

Patrick is a Christian with more than 30 years experience in professional writing, producing and marketing. His professional background also includes social media, reporting for broadcast television and the web, directing, videography and photography. He enjoys getting to know people over coffee and spending time with his dog.