Tuesday, January 11, 2005

The Thornburgh Report, Part 1: I Read It So You Don't Have To

Some highlights, lowlights and observations related to the Thornburgh Report (boldface type indicates a direct quote from the report, italics are my comments):

Within hours after the Segment aired, questions about the authenticity of the Killian documents were raised, initially in an outpouring from the so-called blogosphere on the Internet�

Whenever someone wishes to deride something, he usually makes use of the phrase �so-called�. Why not say the �so-called� documents? Poor writing � the panel may not be comfortable with the word, but blogosphere is the correct term.

�the stated goal of CBS News is to have a reputation for journalism of the highest quality and unimpeachable integrity. To meet this objective, CBS News expects its personnel to adhere to published internal Standards based on two core principles: accuracy and fairness. The Panel finds that both the September 8 Segment itself and the statements and news reports by CBS News that followed the Segment failed to meet either of these core principles.

I don�t agree with those who say the report is a whitewash � we all wish Rather had received the axe, but the statement above is pretty damning.

The Panel has not been able to conclude with absolute certainty whether the Killian documents are authentic or forgeries. However, the Panel has identified a number of issues that raise serious questions about the authenticity of the documents and their content.

The first sentence above is the one most often quoted disapprovingly. A fair representation requires that the second sentence be included, as well.

The most serious defects in the reporting and production of the September 8 Segment were:
1. The failure to obtain clear authentication of any of the Killian documents from any document examiner;
2. The false statement in the September 8 Segment that an expert had authenticated the Killian documents when all he had done was authenticate one signature from one document used in the Segment;
3. The failure of 60 Minutes Wednesday management to scrutinize the publicly available, and at times controversial, background of the source of the documents, retired Texas Army National Guard Lieutenant Colonel Bill Burkett;
4. The failure to find and interview the individual who was understood at the outset to be Lieutenant Colonel Burkett�s source of the Killian documents, and thus to establish the chain of custody;
5. The failure to establish a basis for the statement in the Segment that the ocuments �were taken from Colonel Killian�s personal files�;
6. The failure to develop adequate corroboration to support the statements in the Killian documents and to carefully compare the Killian documents to official TexANG records, which would have identified, at a minimum, notable inconsistencies in content and format;
7. The failure to interview a range of former National Guardsmen who served with Lieutenant Colonel Killian and who had different perspectives about the documents;
8. The misleading impression conveyed in the Segment that Lieutenant Strong had authenticated the content of the documents when he did not have the personal knowledge to do so;
9. The failure to have a vetting process capable of dealing effectively with the production speed, significance and sensitivity of the Segment; and
10. The telephone call prior to the Segment�s airing by the producer of the Segment to a senior campaign official of Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry - a clear conflict of interest - that created the appearance of a political bias.

One could quibble with the choice of words (appearance of a political bias is too cautious a phrase), but again, this is harsh stuff. The laundry list of offenses continues:

Among the more egregious shortcomings during the Aftermath were:
1. The strident defense of the September 8 Segment by CBS News without adequately probing whether any of the questions raised had merit;
2. Allowing many of the same individuals who produced and vetted the by-then controversial September 8 Segment to also produce the follow-up news reports defending the Segment;
3. The inaccurate press statements issued by CBS News after the broadcast of the Segment that the source of the documents was �unimpeachable� and that experts had vouched for their authenticity;
4. The misleading stories defending the Segment that aired on the CBS Evening News after September 8 despite strong and multiple indications of serious flaws;
5. The efforts by 60 Minutes Wednesday to find additional document examiners who would vouch for the authenticity of the documents instead of identifying the best examiners available regardless of whether they would support this position; and
6. Preparing news stories that sought to support the Segment, instead of providing accurate and balanced coverage of a raging controversy.

The Panel expresses the earnest hope, however, that the failures identified in this Report will not induce timidity at CBS News or chill its investigative reporting. Done accurately and fairly, investigative reporting serves a critical role in a free society. Done inaccurately, it can cause great harm.

Why are the last three sentences in the report? Is this a term paper?

The interests of Rather and Mapes in pursuing a story about President Bush�s TexANG service date back to at least 1999.

This should have been a huge red flag. Like Bush�s alleged cocaine use, if something reliable was going to come out, it would have been during the 2000 campaign.

Lieutenant Colonel Burkett told Mapes on either September 4 or 5 that he had received the documents from another former Texas Army National Guardsman, Chief Warrant Officer George Conn, a statement that Lieutenant Colonel Burkett would later admit was not true. Mapes and her team of associate producers did virtually nothing to attempt to contact Chief Warrant Officer Conn to confirm this story and further trace the chain of custody of the documents.

This is the 'rush-to-judgment' that the great jurist Johnny Cochran warned us against in the O. J. trial.

[Associate Producer Yvonne] Miller did not have sufficient time to learn the fundamentals of document authentication. Had she known the basics, she would have realized that it would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to authenticate the Killian documents because they were copies, the alleged author was dead and no person could be located who was alleged to have been present when the documents were prepared.

Had she known the basics, or alternatively, had a tiny degree of common sense...

Two of the examiners told the Panel that they informed Mapes and Miller that they had various concerns about the documents. Significantly, all four of the examiners told the Panel that they informed Mapes and Miller that they could not authenticate the documents, primarily because they were copies.

The heart of the matter: when told there were concerns about the documents' authenticity, they plowed ahead, so deep was their desire to �get� Bush.

Much more ground remains to be covered, too much for a single post - stay tuned...

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