FLASHBACK: When Dan Rather’s Partisan Corruption Caught Up With Him

September 9th, 2023 8:45 AM

This month, the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences will induct former CBS News anchor Dan Rather into its Gold and Silver Circle, a “society of honor” reserved for “exceptional professionals who have performed distinguished service within the television industry, setting standards for achievement, mentoring and professional accolades for 50 or 25 years, respectively.”

The award comes exactly 19 years after Rather’s most corrupt act as a journalist, when he and producer Mary Mapes attempted an election-year hit job on then-President George W. Bush. Just eight weeks before election day, in a September 8, 2004 report on 60 Minutes, Rather claimed “new” evidence showing Bush received “preferential treatment” during his Vietnam-era service in the Texas Air National Guard.

“Newly discovered documents spark new questions,” Rather hyped that night on his CBS Evening News. “CBS News has exclusive information, including documents, that now sheds new light on the President’s service record.”

The documents in question were supposedly from Bush’s commanding officer, Lt. Col. Jerry Killian, typed on his office typewriter decades before computers and word processors became common in the workplace. It didn’t take long before observers on the Internet highlighted how the “newly discovered documents” looked more like something whipped up in Microsoft Word using the default Times Roman font than on an early 1970s typewriter.

The next evening on World News Tonight, ABC’s Terry Moran conceded that the documents might not be real: “Several document experts contacted by ABC News have raised serious questions about the authenticity of these new documents.” The Weekly Standard’s Steve Hayes contacted numerous experts for a post that same evening, including one who said: “I’m a Kerry supporter myself, but...I’m 99% sure that these documents were not produced in the 1970s.”

By Friday, September 10, 2004, other liberal networks had become doubters, too. “Today, NBC News consulted an FBI-trained document expert with three decades of experience who reviews the documents and suspects they were generated by a modern-day computer,” reporter David Gregory explained on Nightly News. Viewers then heard from forensic document specialist William Flynn: “I don’t believe that anyone in the forensic community that saw this document would have verified it as a genuine document. There are just too many things that are wrong with the document.”

The supposed author of the documents, Col. Killian, was no longer living, but others from the Texas Air National Guard office disputed the documents. Killian’s boss, Major General Bobby Hodges, told the Los Angeles Times that he didn’t believe the documents were real. Killian’s secretary, Marian Carr Knox, told the Dallas Morning News that “those are not real....They’re not what I typed, and I would have typed them for him.”

Instead of honestly admitting error, Rather dug in. “Today, on the Internet and elsewhere, some people, including many who are partisan political operatives, concentrated not on the key questions of the overall story, but on the documents that were part of the support of the story,” Rather defiantly argued on the September 10 Evening News. “If any definitive evidence to the contrary of our story is found, we will report it. So far there is none.”

That night, Rather cited one of the experts used in the original 60 Minutes report. “Document and handwriting examiner Marcel Matley analyzed the documents for CBS News. He says he believes they are real.”

But that’s not what Matley told the Washington Post’s Michael Dobbs and Howard Kurtz a couple of days later: “‘There’s no way I, as a document expert, can authenticate them,’ Marcel Matley said in a telephone interview from San Francisco. The main reason, he said, is that they are ‘copies’ that are ‘far removed’ from the originals.”

“CBS News is acting the way the Nixon administration did during Watergate,” former CBS News correspondent Bernard Goldberg told the Post’s Kurtz for a September 16 piece. “I’m really sad to say that Dan Rather is acting like Richard Nixon. It’s the cover-up, it’s the stonewalling.”

In a September 17 article, the New York Daily News’s Paul Colford quoted longtime CBS News fixture Andy Rooney as saying “he believes the controversial documents on President Bush’s National Guard service are fake.” Rooney told Colford: “I’m surprised at their reluctance to concede they’re wrong.”

The following Monday, September 20, Rather finally acknowledged that CBS “could no longer vouch for their authenticity.” He revealed that his source had been Bill Burkett, a left-wing Texas activist who, Rather admitted, had been trying “for several years now to discredit President Bush’s military service record.”

As the Washington Post’s Michael Dobbs put it in his September 21 article: “The man CBS News touted as the ‘unimpeachable source’ of explosive documents about President Bush’s National Guard service turns out to be a former Guard officer with a history of self-described mental problems who has denounced Bush as a liar with ‘demonic personality shortcomings.’”

In an interview with Rather shown on the September 20 CBS Evening News, Burkett admitted he lied about how he had supposedly obtained the documents, but denied he forged them. “Burkett still insists the documents are real,” Rather explained, “but says he was in no position to verify them.” Rather then apologized for failing to “properly, fully, scrutinize the documents and their source....It was a mistake. CBS News deeply regrets it. Also, I want to say personally and directly: I’m sorry.”

After the election, Rather announced he would step down in March 2005 after 24 years as anchor of the CBS Evening News. A January report by an independent panel asked by CBS to look into the matter found “fundamental deficiencies in reporting,” but stopped short of finding a political bias against Bush.

“On the question of blame,” CBS’s Wyatt Andrews reported on the January 10, 2005 Evening News, “the report points mostly to producer [Mary] Mapes, finding, for example, she never told superiors her source, Bill Burkett, was an ex-Guardsman with an anti-Bush history.” In the wake of the report, Mapes was fired, while three senior managers were asked to resign.

“The investigation says while Rather played a small role in the original report, he played a large role in trying to defend the indefensible, often blaming the right-wing,” ABC’s Brian Ross explained that night on World News Tonight. But since Rather had already announced his departure, he faced no actual punishment from CBS.

Ten months later, Ross interviewed Mapes, the fired producer, for Good Morning America. She insisted she had done nothing wrong: “I don’t think I committed bad journalism.”

Ross was bewildered: “It seems remarkable to me that you would sit here now and say you still find that story to be up to your standards.”

Mapes countered: “I’m perfectly willing to believe those documents are forgeries if there’s proof that I haven’t seen.”

Ross pressed: “But isn’t it the other way around? Don’t you have to prove their authentic?...Isn’t that what journalists do?”

“No, I don’t think that’s the standard,” Mapes wrongly insisted.

Rather, too, has also often defended the “truth” of the 60 Minutes report, as when he told NBC in 2015: “Because it was true, those who wanted to discredit the story had to attack the process by which we got to the truth and they’ve successfully attacked us on that.”

Plainly, neither Rather nor Mapes has accepted the fact that they engaged in profoundly unethical conduct in order to push their anti-Bush story on the air before the election. Instead of acting like truth-seeking journalists, they touted (likely) bogus documents from a highly-dubious source only because it confirmed the narrative they wished to promote.

As longtime CBS 60 Minutes producer Don Hewitt reportedly said at a January 10, 2005 meeting at CBS News, the day the independent panel released its report: “Does anybody really think there wouldn’t have been more scrutiny if this had been about John Kerry?”

For more examples from our flashback series, which we call the NewsBusters Time Machine, go here.