One of the reasons why Dan Rather's lawsuit against CBS over his reportage on George W. Bush's National Guard record is so interesting is that it promises to reveal whole new facets of the story that have yet to come to light.
One of the more interesting possibilities is that Bush himself could be drawn into the legal battle. Paddy at Cliff Schechter's blog reports that Rather is considering calling Bush himself as a witness at the trial. No doubt Bush would fight this tooth and nail -- but as it so happens, there's a recent Supreme Court precedent called Clinton v. Jones which stipulates that a sitting president can be called before a court in a civil case:
- Although scheduling problems may arise, there is no reason to assume that the District Courts will be either unable to accommodate the President's needs or unfaithful to the tradition--especially in matters involving national security--of giving "the utmost deference to Presidential responsibilities."
No small irony there, is there?
But probably most interesting, for the sake of setting the larger historical record straight, is the possibility that new information could come forward both confirming, for the public record, the details of what we already know about Bush's service -- namely, that he used his family's influence not only to evade the draft but also the consequences for skipping out on the lesser military commitments he did make.
At the same time, we may learn important new facts about the way our major media networks operate at the top -- and how far backward they'll bend to accommodate the Bush administration and its bullying demands.
Eric Boehlert's must-read take on the lawsuit points out how atrocious the media's response to Rather's lawsuit has been:
- Turns out, though, it wasn't the suits at CBS or the right-wing bloggers who busted the biggest vein over Rather's lawsuit. It was mainstream journalists who rushed in to denounce the former anchorman as dishonest, arrogant, bitter, and delusional, all the while making sure not to take up Rather's challenge of addressing the underlying facts of the story surrounding Bush's no-show military service.
As Boehlert later suggests, the eagerness to condemn Rather similarly reflects their eagerness to overlook their own disturbing failures to have adequately reported this story from the day it first began to surface (which is to say, in the summer of 2000).
Joan Walsh has some similar thoughts:
- You can debate the wisdom of Rather's using a lawsuit to settle scores with his old network, but too many reporters are, unconscionably and wrongly, insisting that Rather's story about George W. Bush's missing time in the Texas Air National Guard was invalidated by questions about the memos it used to confirm some of the details. The story itself was well grounded: Rather confirmed that Bush had political help getting a coveted TANG slot and then disappeared from his military duties for months at a time. The problem was with the memos the "60 Minutes II" segment used to "prove" higher-ups had complained about Bush's disappearing act; they were never authenticated, and they shouldn't have been used. But that doesn't mean, as the Los Angeles Times has claimed, that the Rather report was "wholly unsubstantiated."
Boehlert goes into this point in more detail:
- Keep in mind, I'm not defending CBS' work here. Years ago I detailed the many mistakes producer Mary Mapes and her team made in needlessly rushing their Texas Air National Guard story onto the air, and how holes in the story were not communicated up the CBS chain of command before the report aired. In fact, as somebody who in 2004 wrote extensively about Bush's missing years in the Guard, and who tried to lay out the facts in hopes that the mainstream media would take more interest in the story, I was furious when Memogate broke. Furious because I knew that the press, spooked by the right-wing pitchfork mob that had assembled online, was going to run -- not walk -- away from the story for fear of raising the same ire.
I'll admit that I had a similar reaction to first hearing of the lawsuit. I criticized both Rather and his producer, Mary Mapes, at the time -- and still do -- for their journalistic sloppiness in failing to ascertain the provenance of the Killian documents. As someone who had been carefully shepherding this story over the course of four years and was looking forward to the breakthrough it was finally getting (remember that the story was being discussed in other quarters than just CBS), it frankly angered me that their sloppiness led to the story
being tossed into the pit.
Gene Lyons, too, noted this at the time, saying:
- Amazingly, the CBS team reporting on the president's lost year in the National Guard -- and do let's recall that the suspect memos made a neat fit with other signs that Bush took a powder -- never talked to the purported source of the documents even after Burkett changed his story about who it was. That’s incredible.
But if you give Rather's complaint a careful reading, you'll see that there's a fairly convincing explanation for this: Rather and others were being told that the vetting of the documents was being thoroughly handled by none other than the president of CBS News himself, Andrew Heyward.
And yes, this is the same Andrew Heyward who (according to Rather) attempted to suppress the Abu Ghraib prison story. And yes, it's also the same Andrew Heyward who -- unnoted by Rather in the lawsuit, but fully explored by Eric Boehlert -- who a couple of weeks later used the Killian memos debacle as the rather flimsy pretext for killing Ed Bradley's long-awaited report on the Niger documents hoax that played such a critical role in the justification for the Iraq war.
Eli at Firedoglake was one of the first to notice this, and it may prove important. As he notes, the Rather complaint has a lot of interesting details about this, including how Heyward kept Rather busy while he was supposed to be busy "vetting" the documents for the coming report on Bush's military record:
- Mr. Heyward instructed Mr. Rather to concentrate on hurricane coverage, stating that he would personally supervise the vetting of the Bush TexANG story and Documents, as he had done with the Abu Ghraib story. Further, he assured Mr. Rather that he would assign other senior CBS News personnel to vet the story, including Betsy West.
And then, once the story had been aired, Heyward ordered Rather to stand behind the story, telling him the network would back him all the way -- even as they were preparing to screw him:
- For several days [after the Killian memos were questioned], Mr. Heyward and CBS News determined to stand by the story. Mr. Heyward and CBS public relations executive Gil Schwartz directed Mr. Rather to defend the story in response to media queries, using “talking points” prepared by Ms. Mapes.
Mr. Heyward also directed Mr. Rather not to respond to the accusations of bias made against him personally, assuring Mr. Rather that CBS would defend and stand by him. Relying on these assurances, Mr. Rather complied and did not respond to personal attacks on his journalistic integrity.
On September 20, 2004, Mr. Heyward and Mr. Schwartz decided that CBS should completely change its position and issue an apology for the Broadcast. Although Mr. Heyward himself had undertaken personal responsibility for the vetting of the story, he instructed Mr. Rather to read a public apology, written by Mr. Schwartz, for both Mr. Rather and CBS’s handling of the story. Despite his own personal feelings that no apology from him was warranted, Mr. Rather read the apology as instructed. Mr. Rather also, as instructed, did not publicly defend the story.
From the outside, this has all the appearances of deliberate sabotage on Heyward's part -- and Heyward's closeness to CBS's Republican-loving owner, Sumner Redstone, may help explain why.
Sidney Blumenthal's authoritative piece in Salon also points to this facet of the case:
- They heard from some researchers on the "60 Minutes II" staff that before they had been questioned, a CBS executive had told them that they should feel free to pin all blame on Rather and Mapes.
Like all ugly and revealing and truly damning stories about themselves that politicians always try to suppress, this story has taken on a second and third life because of the very efforts to keep it quiet. As Blumenthal concludes:
- On one level, the Bush National Guard story is about Bush and the National Guard. On another, of course, it is about Rather's reputation. But on yet another it is about CBS's overwhelming desire to please the Bush White House and censor itself. The White House campaign against Rather has been so successful that many in the national press corps behave as though in mouthing its talking points they are demonstrating their own independent thought.
It's not just CBS whose appalling behavior and lack of journalistic integrity who is being exposed here. The same can be fully said of all those bandwagon jumpers eager to assure us that Rather's suit is just pathetic and lame.
Mebbe they ought to look in the mirror on that score.