The Flawed Report on Dan Rather

Report of the Independent Review Panel on the September 8, 2004 60 Minutes Wednesday Segment "For the Record" Concerning President Bush's Texas Air National Guard Service

by Dick Thornburgh and Louis D. Boccardi
January 5, 2005, 224 pp.

A few weeks ago former Attorney General Richard Thornburgh and Louis Boccardi, former head of the Associated Press, released their report on Dan Rather’s use of allegedly forged Texas Air National Guard (ANG) documents covering President George W. Bush’s military service. The report, as is well known, excoriated CBS for the use of these documents on its 60 Minutes Wednesday program on September 8, 2004. It is, however, a flawed report. It should not be uncritically accepted, as it has been by the press and by television commentators.

The report concluded that CBS failed to hire appropriate experts to clearly verify its statements and did not establish a “chain of custody” for the documents. CBS, according to the report, rushed to judgment on the basis of inadequate evidence, did not promptly acknowledge flaws in its program, and broadcast a false and misleading report.

CBS did rush to make inadequately verified allegations public and it was slow in responding to criticism. The report’s conclusions on the other points are not, however, persuasive. Surprisingly, the panel was unable to conclude whether the documents are forgeries or not. If the documents are not forgeries, what is the reason for the report? The answer is: to criticize the newsgathering practices of CBS, whether the documents are authentic or not. As such, the report is less than fully credible.

Lost in the commotion over the authenticity of the documents is that the underlying facts of Rather’s 60 Minutes report are substantially true. Bush did not take the physical exam required of all pilots; his superiors gave him the benefit of any doubt; he did receive special treatment and Lieutenant Colonel Jerry Killian, Bush’s commanding officer, was unhappy with the loss of ANG’s investment in him when Bush informed Killian he was leaving for Alabama. Before the broadcast, Mary Mapes, the CBS producer of the program, confirmed the facts in the documents with retired Major General Bobby Hodges, who had been Killian’s superior in the ANG. Later Hodges told the panel he did not think the documents were authentic, but did not disagree that the facts were substantially correct.

Following the broadcast, Marian Carr Knox, who was Killian’s secretary at the time, confirmed the facts of the broadcast, saying, “There’s no doubt in my mind that [the] information is correct.” When the panel cross-examined Knox she seemed less certain of what she had told Rather but she did not contradict any of the broadcast. Since the broadcast, no one has come forward to say the program was untruthful.

The panel attacks the four experts CBS hired to authenticate the documents. One of the four, James Pierce, concluded that the signatures on the documents were authentic and that there was no reason to believe the documents were not genuine. Such conclusions are common for document examiners. A second, Marcel Matley, also concluded that the signatures were genuine.

The other two experts had reser-vations about the documents. One, Emily Will, said that from the documents made available…

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