Sunday, September 26, 2004

By J. Randy Evans

Rathergate - the use by CBS News of fabricated documents in a news story attacking the President in the midst of a campaign in conjunction with a Democratic National Committee effort to capitalize on the story.

CBS News has apologized for any inconvenience caused by its “mistake in judgment” and promptly blamed the source. No one has been fired, reprimanded, disciplined, or otherwise held responsible for the conduct. An “independent panel” will be appointed to look at the issue. The first question that comes to mind in connection with this story is where is the chorus of politicians (who had previously gathered in Boston) prepared to call Dan Rather a “liar”?

When the President included a line (which other countries believed to be true) in a State of the Union address that was later characterized as inaccurate, the Democrats lined up to call him a “liar.” It did not matter that the entire world held the same belief as the President at the time that he made the statement. It did not matter that the President relied on others for the accuracy of the statement. It did not matter that the President believed the statement to be true at the time he made it. Instead, the only factor that mattered was whether the statement was accurate at the time made. That alone was sufficient to question the President’s motives, impugn his integrity, and call him a “liar.” Where are these folks now?

Unlike the President, CBS News did not rely on reputable verification of the authenticity of the information before using it. Indeed, CBS News worked a deal so that the source that now admits he lied about where he got the documents could speak directly with a top aide to Senator John Kerry after he provided CBS news with the documents. The explanation - Dan Rather couched his apology with the explanation that “an error that was made, however, in good faith and in the spirit of trying to carry on a CBS News tradition of investigative reporting without fear or favoritism." Of course, the question is without "favoritism” to whom?

The timing of the report, the coordination with the Kerry campaign, the blatant violation of the standards of news reporting, and the clearly designed impact of the story leave no real question regarding the intent behind the conduct and it was not good faith reporting. Worse yet, the continued defense of the story, days after the rest of the world had recognized that the documents were fakes, left little doubt that this was not about the story, but instead about making the story stick, regardless of its accuracy. Even after CBS News was bludgeoned into recognizing the questions surrounding the documents, Dan Rather insisted that while the documents might be fake, the story was still true. This is the spirit of a CBS News tradition?

If the making of an inaccurate statement in reliance on a government report citing information from a respected ally is sufficient cause to use the label “liar” freely, then what would be the label for Dan Rather and CBS News? And what would the label be for the campaign that attempted to benefit from such conduct be called?

J. Randy Evans
Randy is a partner at McKenna, Long, Aldridge & Norman in Atlanta and serves as General Counsel to both the Georgia Republican Party and U.S. House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert.

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