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"Buckhead" vs. Dan Rather: Internet David slays media Goliath

By Nicholas Stix
web posted September 27, 2004

I come not to bury Dan Rather, but to praise him.

For Rather's journalism career is surely over. When he got snookered by the forged memos peddled by longtime Bush enemy Bill Burkett, a retired Texas Army National Guard lieutenant colonel, and the fraud was exposed by a 'lousy Internet site,' instead of Rather re-investigating the story, he stonewalled, took the offensive, engaged in a "modified, limited hangout" (the September 21 New York Post) and attacked his critics. Once he admitted that something wasn't quite right, he even tried to take credit for determining that a hoax had taken place. Rather acted less like a newsman, than a besieged politician. But then, powerful journalism figures have been acting like politicians since at least the War in Vietnam.

Dan RatherThe question isn't if "Gunga Dan" will "be retired," but when. I believe it'll come down in six months, a decent interval that will give the CBS suits plausible deniability, so they can say that Rather's firing, er, retirement had nothing to do with Memogate aka Rathergate. After all, they'll say, the man is 72 years old.

Conservatives and Republicans alike have been celebrating Rather's downfall, and Rather certainly brought it on himself. And yet, I am not celebrating. And this story is much bigger than Rather and CBS.

To recap the story, on September 8, on the Wednesday edition of 60 Minutes, Rather displayed four memoranda (he had six, all told) that had supposedly been written on May 4, May 19, and August 1, 1972, and August 18, 1973 by Lt. George W. Bush's commanding officer in the Texas Air National Guard, Lt. Col. Jerry Killian (who died in 1984), showing that Lt. Bush had failed to get a physical the colonel had given him a direct order to get, and that Col. Killian had been politically pressured to "sugar coat" Lt. Bush's record.

"Buckhead" and Post #47

As soon as CBS put the "documents," or rather photocopies of them on its Web site, a FReeper (denizen of the conservative/Republican Web site, Buckhead argued,

"Howlin [another FReeper's username], every single one of these memos to file is in a proportionally spaced font, probably Palatino or Times New Roman.

"In 1972 people used typewriters for this sort of thing, and typewriters used monospaced fonts.

"The use of proportionally spaced fonts did not come into common use for office memos until the introduction of laser printers, word processing software, and personal computers. They were not widespread until the mid to late 90's. Before then, you needed typesetting equipment, and that wasn't used for personal memos to file. Even the Wang systems that were dominant in the mid 80's used monospaced fonts.

"I am saying these documents are forgeries, run through a copier for 15 generations to make them look old.

"This should be pursued aggressively."

That was the first blow, from which all the others followed. Several FReepers in the "Pajama Posse" researched the matter further on a series of threads that night, to be joined by a number of bloggers, among them Ratherbiased.com, PowerLineBlog.com, LittleGreenFootballs.com and Instapundit.com. (The term "blog" derives from "Web log." I believe "Pajama Posse" is a facetious reference to FReepers who do research on the Internet while in their pajamas. While some FReepers are lawyers and current or former journalists -- the late Barbara Olson was a FReeper, though not an active one -- many of its best researchers are simply bright, hard-nosed civilians with a modem and a large library.)

Actually, the typewriter fonts used in the CBS documents existed at the time, but were not commonly used, and certainly not by the Texas Air National Guard, much less by Col Killian, who did not type memos.

Only when the "blogosphere" lit up with activity, did the media grudgingly pick up the story, and eventually kick into high gear, even as their members refused to credit the Web world. "Buckhead" was identified by the Los Angeles Times as 46-year-old, conservative activist Atlanta attorney Harry W. McDougald ("Buckhead" is a tony Atlanta neighborhood).

The refusal by most of the media, when the Memogate hoax was exposed, to credit McDougald/Buckhead and his FReeper compatriots is typical of the vanity and arrogance of that media subculture, whose partisans still believe that they have a monopoly on describing social reality and prescribing political action, and that civilians have merely to accept what they dish out, and follow their marching orders. (Politically correct "journalistic ethics authority" Jim Romenesko of the Poynter Institute, also refused to discuss Memogate until everyone and his Aunt Ida already had, which led Washington Dispatch editor C.K. Rairden to skewer Romenesko, along with CBS. Romenesko's views are pretty much representative of the dominant talking points in university journalism programs.)

Eventually, it came out that some of CBS' own document experts had had grave misgivings about the authenticity of the documents; people whom Rather claimed had vouchsafed the documents' authenticity had never seen them, but only had their contents read to them over the telephone, or only seen photocopies; and that Rather had ignored the insistence of the late Col. Killian's wife and son, that the memos could not have been from him. And even after the hoax was exposed, Rather was caught presenting a former typewriter repairman as a document expert.

Finally, on September 20, Rather announced,

"The failure of CBS News to do just that, to properly, fully, scrutinize the documents and their source, led to our airing the documents when we should not have done so. It was a mistake. CBS News deeply regrets it. Also I want to say personally and directly, I'm sorry."

CBS News chief Andrew Heyward, who is also toast, said, "We should not have used them. That was a mistake, which we deeply regret."

CBS has appointed Rather-crony Louis Boccardi, the former head of the Associated Press (which gave us "Boosgate"), and former U.S. Attorney General and Pennsylvania Gov. Dick Thornburgh, a liberal Republican, to find out how the network was conned, and by whom.

Rather has yet to admit that the "documents" were forgeries, or even that they were the basis of his story. Burkett still denies that he is the forger, but has admitted that he lied when he gave CBS the name of a former Texas Air National guardsman, "George Conn," as his source. Conn reportedly responded to a USA Today e-mail by writing, "Know absolutely nothing about the Killian memos." Burkett then went to Plan B, claiming that his source was a "Lucy Ramirez," though no one has been able to turn up the mysterious "Lucy."

Burkett is also surely misrepresenting the situation, when he maintains that CBS came to him. Are CBS producers telepathic? Burkett would have to have let CBS News know, through an intermediary, that he had something it would very much want to see. As the USA Today article reported, he had sought to peddle the same story to the newspaper in February, but without the forged documents. In any event, Burkett may be liable for criminal charges, since trafficking in forged documents -- much less forged documents purporting to come from an officer of the federal government -- was still a crime, last I noticed.

While many reporters and observers have emphasized that Burkett has a history of mental illness (his inability to receive medical benefits for his psychological treatment is supposedly at the heart of his beef with then-Gov. Bush), as University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato noted on Fox News Channel's Special Edition with Brit Hume on September 22, "This was a complicated scam." Sabato was impressed "not [with] the quality of the forgery, but the information in the documents." The forger clearly knew what sort of language was required.

On Tuesday, the Republican watchdog, the Media Research Center, noted that Rather had yet to apologize to those who had exposed him, whom he had impugned as rich, right-wing ideologues. Such arrogance towards the Internet (not to mention towards Republicans) remains pervasive in the media. Even as the story unfolded, such grandees as Ted Koppel of ABC's Nightline and Newsweek's Michael Isikoff, refused to credit Free Republic with breaking the story. On the September 10 Nightline, with the hoax already exposed, Koppell would only mention an anonymous "Web site." Isikoff, appearing on Fox' The O'Reilly Factor on September 20, emphasized the wonderful work the media was doing.

ABC's New York affiliate, WABC Eyewitness News, was even worse. At 12:18 a.m. on the morning of September 11, on a late version of the 11 O'Clock News, over 48 hours after the story had started unraveling, anchor Bill Ritter read aloud, "The President was saying nothing about controversial documents" about his National Guard service.

In fact, the President was then indeed saying nothing about the "controversial documents" in question. And so, the Eyewitness News writer who provided the "content" Ritter delivered, wasn't guilty of "lying" as such, but was guilty as hell of dishonesty, for misrepresenting the story to viewers. The "controversial documents" Ritter referred to weren't documents at all, but rather forgeries.

And yet Ritter, who in spite of the WABC Marketing Department's strategy of presenting him as a regular guy, is politically correct with a vengeance, was still peddling the discredited, anti-Bush story.

Rather's defenders are not limited to WABC's Eyewitness News. According to reporter Don Kaplan in the September 21 New York Post, Rather's supporters at CBS are circling the wagons – well, sort of, anonymously.

"Within CBS News, executives, producers, and on-air talent closed ranks yesterday and voiced their support for Rather.

"‘There's a sense of people rallying behind Dan Rather,' another CBS News source said on condition of anonymity. ‘He's not on a mission to bring down the Bush administration.'"

And in the New York Daily News, TV critic David Bianculli wrote on September 21, that he considered Rather "a reliable, old-fashioned seeker of truth," who was not at all guilty of bashing conservatives.

"Yesterday, of course, he and CBS fessed up to using documents they shouldn't have…."

"Rather ought to be judged less for the use of questionable documents than for how he and CBS corrected the process that let them slip through, and for what he says and does next."

Bianculli doesn't want Rather punished for foisting a hoax on the public, or even for stonewalling, after he was caught out. Heck, Bianculli apparently doesn't think anyone should be punished. Rather merely needs to "correct the process." The process made him do it! Bianculli is so pc, that he refused to use the "f" word, as in "forgery."

Hearst's Helen Thomas called Rather "a magnificent reporter." Of course for Thomas, any story that makes Republicans look bad is "magnificent," the truth be damned. Thomas somehow rationalized things, so that Pres. Bush replaced Rather as the heavy in the Memogate/Rathergate saga.

"Truth is our Holy Grail. I'm sure everybody is feeling bad about it....To me, the real issue is why doesn't the President tell us the truth? Why doesn't he put out all the documents? Because he can't, because there are too many gaps."

And Vanity Fair writer Dominick Dunne said, "I love Dan Rather. I'm so sad for him. I feel sorry for him. I think someone set him up."

I suppose Rather can take comfort in the fact that at least Bianculli, Thomas, and Dunne didn't express their support anonymously.

My earliest memory of a reporter in action, was of Dan Rather heroically doing his "standup" from the floor of the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, while being shoved around by goons. More recently, while fighting back tears, Rather gave a poignant sendoff to Pres. Ronald Reagan, after the President's funeral. Unfortunately, Rather fell prey to hubris, and since September 8, we have been watching his own extended funeral.

Nicholas Stix can be reached at add1dda@aol.com.

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