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The Flawed Report on Dan Rather’: An Exchange

In response to:

The Flawed Report on Dan Rather from the April 7, 2005 issue

To the Editors:

We write in response to the article by James Goodale, announced on the cover of The New York Review, “The Report on Dan Rather Flunks” [NYR, April 7]. As the authors of the CBS Report, we feel compelled to respond to the more egregious of his numerous factual errors and assumptions that ignore the record.

We note that while Mr. Goodale apparently had input from the since-fired 60 Minutes Wednesday segment’s producer or her representatives, he never contacted either of us. It is Mr. Goodale’s review that “flunks,” to borrow your language.

Your space limitations for a letter to the editor restrict this rebuttal, but the following responds to his most breathtaking misrepresentations:

Goodale claim: “It [the panel] didn’t interview the principal expert for CBS.”

Fact: The principal (and only) expert referred to in the September 8 segment was Marcel Matley, whom we interviewed at length on more than one occasion. Mr. Goodale apparently is confusing him with another CBS expert, James Pierce, who did indeed refuse an interview with the panel but did talk to a panel lawyer, as we reported. So even if Mr. Goodale had the names right, he would still be wrong.

Goodale claim: “It [the report] all but ignored an important argument for authenticating the documents—’meshing.’”

Fact: The report has a detailed seventeen-page discussion of the so-called “meshing” analysis and finds numerous inconsistencies in content and format between the documents used on the air and the official Bush Air National Guard records. The meshing analysis raises significant unanswered questions which should have been resolved before the program aired.

Goodale claim: “Lost in the commotion over the authenticity of the documents is that the underlying facts of Rather’s 60 Minutes report are substantially true.”

Fact: The items that Mr. Goodale references as being substantially true (not taking a physical, receiving special treatment, transferring to Alabama) had been previously reported and were not the new information that was contained in the documents. Despite a thorough investigation, we did not find proof that the new information in the documents was substantially true. The CBS news standard that to be aired a document must be “what it purports to be” was not met.

Goodale claim: “While such proof [of chain of custody] is relevant in the courtroom, it is often irrelevant for journalists.”

Fact: This statement is astonishing. Chain of custody was absolutely imperative to establish the authenticity of the documents since the immediate source could not vouch for them, and a proximate source was never found or spoken to. Mr. Goodale’s comparing this somehow to The New York Times‘s Pentagon Papers matter is bizarre. The kind of source that the Times had for the Pentagon Papers (Daniel Ellsberg) is exactly what we say was missing in the Bush National Guard story.

Goodale claim: “Investigative reporters must be wily in getting their stories and what Mapes did [arranging a Kerry campaign contact for her anti-Bush source] did not seem reprehensible.”

Fact: This statement is equally astonishing. In our interviews with other CBS News correspondents and managers, facilitating contact between its source and the Kerry campaign to offer strategic advice was described as “outrageous,” “unbelievable,” “hideous,” and “incredibly stupid.” We haven’t the slightest doubt that that would be the same reaction in the newsroom of the esteemed newspaper Mr. Goodale used to represent.

Goodale claim: “A major weakness of the report is that neither Mapes nor Rather was offered a chance to cross-examine the people the panel interviewed.”

Fact: We are unaware of any other fact-gathering internal investigation in which cross-examination was employed. Cross-examination is typically found in an adversarial legal proceeding, which this was not. And why only Mapes and Rather? What about the other senior CBS executives who would lose their jobs in the aftermath? On a practical level, if each of the dozens of witnesses and any of their counsel were to have been provided the opportunity to cross-examine every other witness, the investigation likely would still be ongoing today, three months after we issued our report. Anyone who wanted to be accompanied by a lawyer was welcome to do so, and lawyers who accompanied interviewees were free to engage in the conversation, and did so.

In closing, a postscript from Dick Thornburgh: Mr. Goodale’s dismissal of our report as done “by lawyers for lawyers” gratuitously maligns the enormous and significant contributions of Lou Boccardi, the highly respected former president and CEO of the Associated Press. Lou was an equal partner in the investigation, and in writing and editing our report.

Dick Thornburgh

Washington, D.C.

Lou Boccardi

New Rochelle, New York

James Goodale replies:

All of the claims by Dick Thornburgh and Louis D. Boccardi are easily refuted. The crux of their argument is that I am “confused” about CBS’s experts and that my reference to Mr. Ellsberg is “astonishing.” On the question of experts, it is they who are confused, not I.

It is true that James Pierce, the principal CBS expert, did not appear in Dan Rather’s report of September 8 on George Bush’s record of service in the Air National Guard. The fact that Pierce did not appear, however, does not affect the question whether CBS relied on his opinion before going on air. Pierce, by the panel’s own standards, was the most qualified of the four experts. He gave CBS the most comprehensive expert opinion it received. He said that the signatures matched and that “there was no reason to believe the documents were not authentic.” The other three experts gave their opinions only about the signatures.

Thornburgh and Boccardi misunderstand The New York Times‘s relationship to Daniel Ellsberg. As James Greenfield, the Times‘s editor in charge of the Pentagon Papers project, told me recently, “we thought Ellsberg was a flake” and “unreliable.” The Times sought to authenticate the papers through means other than relying on its source, as did Mapes.

First, the Times sought to determine whether clearly identifiable parts of the Pentagon Papers had been published elsewhere. They had been. Second, it sought to confirm from individuals named in the documents whether they had been in the places named in them and whether they said what they were reported to have said. The Times was able to do this. It did not seek to establish a chain of cus-tody because, among other things, it assumed that Ellsberg was unreliable. Mapes followed exactly the same procedures. From their letter, at least, Thornburgh and Boccardi evidently do not understand how journalists authenticate documents. Journalists do not usually rely on statements made by sources about their authenticity.

Thornburgh and Boccardi also complain that I talked to Mapes and not them. I had to obtain from Mapes her forty-page analysis of how documents “meshed” with known facts, the heart of her case, since the panel did not attach it as an exhibit, although it attached over seven hundred pages of other exhibits. It is not possible to understand Ms. Mapes’s argument about “meshing” from the panel’s incomplete and dismissive attempts to refute it. Had the panel explained Ms. Mapes’s position fully and attached a copy of her analysis there would have been no need for me to talk to her.

Thornburgh and Boccardi agree with me that the “underlying facts…are substantially true.” They say they “did not find proof” that the “new information” was “substantially true.” I did not say the new information was substantially true. I said Killian’s commanding officer at the time, Major General Bobby Hodges, and Killian’s secretary, Marion Carr Knox, said that it was. Although they do not say so, apparently Thornburgh and Boccardi chose not to believe Hodges and Knox. I found no reason to disbelieve them, and Thornburgh and Boccardi give none.

According to Thornburgh and Boccardi, “everyone they talked to” thought Mapes’s calls to the Kerry campaign were “outrageous,” “hideous,” etc. I reached a different conclusion based solely on the report, not what people told me. If I had relied on what nearly everyone told me before I read the report, I might have come to the same conclusion as Boccardi and Thornburgh did.

The report, among other reasons, is one-sided because the panel did not give Rather and Mapes a chance to respond. It is only fair, indeed it is the essence of due process as we know it, that they should have had such a chance. Ordinarily, this is done through cross-examination. I suggested this procedure because of the seriousness of the issues involved. If allowing Rather and Mapes to confront and question their accusers would have taken a lot of time, so be it. At the very least, the panel could have asked Rather and Mapes to respond to specific allegations.

Mr. Thornburgh says I have denigrated Mr. Boccardi who was “an equal partner” in the report. I have known Mr. Boccardi for decades as I have known Mr. Thornburgh. Each is highly respected and each, so far as I know, has a spotless reputation. If, however, one writes a report of 234 pages with eight other people, all of whom are lawyers from the same firm, one’s voice tends to get lost. The report is replete with lawyers’ phrases of which the best example is “chain of custody”—a phrase I have never heard a journalist use.

I don’t know why it was necessary to have lawyers write this kind of report. Why not Mr. Boccardi and eight other journalists? Or an equal number of journalists and lawyers, some of whom might be lawyers with experience in dealing with the press and television. I said the report reads as though it was written by lawyers and intended for lawyers, and the letter of Thornburgh and Boccardi only reinforces that conclusion.

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