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September 15, 2004
Hanging tough at CBS
Faced with a mountain of evidence that suggests its examination of Bush's career in the National Guard relied on forged documents, CBS News has decided to dig in its heels. While bloggers and the mainstream media assail the veracity of the documents, Dan Rather is focusing on proclaiming the "essential truth" of the story to The New York Observer. It's galling to see Rather, who has spent a career holding other people accountable for their mistakes, fail to take legitimate questions about his own work seriously. It's even more galling to see Rather cast himself as a free-speech hero. "I think over the long haul, this will be consistent with our history and our traditions and reputation," he said. "We took heat during the McCarthy time, during Vietnam, during civil rights, during Watergate. We haven?always been right, but our record is damn good."
It's wrong for Rather to link the current controversy to "heat" taken during the McCarthy or Watergate eras. It's a good bet that the White House didn't like the story because it was politically damaging, but that doesn't explain why critics in the mainstream press have continued to raise legitimate questions about the authenticity of the documents. The Los Angeles Times, hardly a house organ for the White House, has determined that "CBS News was had. It's hard to reach any other conclusion."
This is no way to run a crisis. Rather should borrow a page from The New York Times and USA Today. Faced with questions about the reliability of their own reporting, they launched serious internal investigations and corrected the record. CBS should turn the 60 Minutes team on itself and determine once and for all whether the documents are real. If it turns out that they are fakes, they should simply admit they made a mistake. It would be a tough hit. But given Rather's long and distinguished career, his reputation would still survive.
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