No News Here

How the CBS memos helped re-elect george W. Bush; cataclysm foretold in the Atlantic

"I mean, this isn't new." So says veteran investigative journalist Al Tompkins, now a Poynter Institute scholar, about the rules that CBS broke on its now discredited National Guard memos story, rules like: Establish where a document came from, make sure even superstar producers go through a vetting process, and don't rush to air—basically, the basics.

So the journalistic protocols that were violated weren't new. But then, neither was the story. According to the CBS investigative-panel report, when CBS producer Mary Mapes faxed the first memos to 60 Minutes Wednesdayexecutive producer Josh Howard on September 2, Howard "wondered why Mapes was excited about them, as he did not think they contained significant new information."

Was Howard, who lost his job along with Mapes and two other CBS execs over the memos mess, onto something?

Memo to Rather: Check your facts.
photo: CBS Worldwide
Memo to Rather: Check your facts.

By September 2004 it was not disputed that President Bush had missed his 1972 physical, did not fly after April of that year, and had a gap in his service record during that spring and summer. Sure, the memos CBS used suggested that Bush's commander ordered him to complete the physical, that Dubya failed to meet other "standards," and that Bush was wielding influence to "sugar coat" his lapses. But the CBS segment also featured former Texas lieutenant governor Ben Barnes talking about the phone call he allegedly made to get young Dubya into the Guard (and out of 'Nam); Barnes acknowledged that way back in 1999.

Whatever news the 60 Minutes Wednesday piece did break, the controversy it ignited suffocated several other stories about Dubya's service record. On the very day the CBS piece ran, The Boston Globe reported that, according to an analysis of his service records, Bush "fell well short of meeting his military obligation," breaking written promises to meet training commitments. But he was never punished. Other papers also published Bush/Guard stories late in the summer, and there were two earlier rounds of interest in 2004: after Michael Moore called Dubya a "deserter" in January, and when the military lost—and then found—some of Bush's service records in July.

The CBS controversy swept all of it off the screen. It was a GOP dream come true. That doesn't mean the whole debacle was a Republican dirty trick, although some—including Mapes herself, when she first obtained the documents—thought so. The memos could have been a mere prank, or a dirty trick by anti-Bush folks.

Heck, they might even be real. Dan Rather told the panel that he still thinks their "content is accurate." Confusion on that point persists because the panel could not establish whether they were authentic or not, and oddly, made no effort to contact Lucy Ramirez, who CBS source Bill Burkett said gave him the documents.

CBS employees contacted for this column either didn't return queries or refused to talk on the record or even on background. As the controversy erupted, senior news staffers were upset at the way CBS was circling the wagons on the story. (Disclosure: Yours truly worked at the CBS website during the memo fiasco and was involved in the coverage of the story there.)

CBS News president Andrew Heyward somehow survived the memo mess, his second major crisis at the network in which subordinates got the ax. (CBS's sluggish response to Princess Di's fatal accident was the first.) It now appears Heyward will outlast his rival, the retiring Rather, only to face the next hurdle for the Tiffany network: replacing him.



Mark your calendar

Get ready for suicide bombings in Las Vegas this June, simultaneous massacres at shopping malls around the country in December, and coordinated subway and railroad attacks in 2006. That's the frightening vision of Richard Clarke, former counterterrorism official, in the cover story of the current Atlantic.

Complete with scary photomontages, Clarke's piece looks back from 2011 on 10 years of violence, government crackdowns, and economic disaster. And none of it would have happened if we had kept more troops in Afghanistan, killed Osama bin Laden when we had the chance, and not invaded Iraq. As fodder for Bush critics, it's juicy stuff, but is it the wake-up call the nation needs?

Hit the snooze button, says Jonathan Raban, who recently critiqued the competing schools of Al Qaeda alarmism in The New York Review of Books. "[Clarke] wasn't imagining the future, he was describing the past," he says. Attacks on trains (see Madrid) and planes (à la 9-11) are yesterday, baby, and Al Qaeda's greatest weapon is surprise, not reprise. Clarke's flaw, Raban says, is that he's not as imaginative as the jihadists: "In order to describe a future of terrorism you have to be as inventive as the terrorists themselves."



Missing ink

Last week, the United States ended its search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, the leading rationale for a war that has now killed at least 1,300 Americans, wounded 10,000 more, and led to the deaths of—by a conservative estimate—thousands of Iraqis. The New York Times mentioned this on page A10 and in a second-day editorial, Newsday on A6, the Daily News in the middle of another story, and the Post not at all. The Sun relegated it to the editorial page, where it said the material may have been "secreted out to Syria." Meanwhile, The Washington Post slapped it on A1.



Head for the exits

Daily News scribes who didn't take the voluntary buyouts that owner Mort Zuckerman offered last month will probably have to play a different ball game with management if the News slashes staff in the future. A 1993 agreement that requires severance payments in the case of involuntary separations lapses on March 31. News spokeswoman Eileen Murphy says the timing of the recent round of buyouts was unrelated to the old deal's looming expiration date.


jmurphy@villagevoice.com

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