Viewpoint: Dan Rather punished for telling truth?

Some folks complain these days that they aren’t getting the truth from our national news media. They wonder why. A very good example of the reasons why cropped up very recently and became an issue in the presidential election campaign.

The example is the one they made of CBS anchorman Dan Rather. Last week, CBS News, through Rather, accompanied by Andrew Heyward, president of the network’s news division, apologized for running a story about George W. Bush’s service–or lack of it–in the Texas Air National Guard during the Vietnam era.

This flap was over some documents about Bush’s service record that certain quarters claimed were forgeries. Even the secretary to Bush’s commander back then, Lt. Col. Jerry B. Killian, branded the documents bogus. Killian died in 1984.

“We made a mistake in judgment, and for that I am sorry,” Rather said in a news conference last week. “It was 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,” Rather added.

Fear. That’s at the core of this story. It erupted after the White House raised questions about connections between Bill Burkett, a retired Texas National Guard officer and the source of the story and the Kerry campaign. Do you smell the odor of Karl Rove? The Kerry campaign has denied any connection with the story.

Back in June 2002, Rather was interviewed on BBC by investigative reporter Greg Palast. Rather was much more candid then. Palast said Rather looked old, tired, defeated and confessing that U.S. newsrooms were paralyzed by censorship, both corporate and self-imposed.

“It’s that fear that keeps journalists from asking the toughest of the tough questions,” Rather told the British television audience. But in America, he told the U.S. audience: “George Bush is the president. He makes the decisions. He wants me to line up, just tell me where.”

Rather added, sadly, “What is going on,” he told Palast, “I’m sorry to say, is a belief that the public doesn’t need to know–limiting access, limiting information to cover the backsides of those who are in charge of the war. It’s extremely dangerous and cannot and should not be accepted, and I’m sorry to say that up to and including this moment of this interview, that overwhelmingly it has been accepted by the American people. And the current administration revels in that, they relish and take refuge in that.”

Palast, in 1999, reported that former Lt. Gov. of Texas Ben Barnes had put in the fix for Dubya to get out of Vietnam and into the Air National Guard. So what is red-hot news in the U.S. this month is a story five-years old in the rest of the world. We probably still wouldn’t have seen it if Rather and his producer on 60 Minutes hadn’t become fed up with all the spin and baloney and tried to tell the truth.

Palast asks: “Is Rather’s report accurate? Is George W. Bush a war hero or a privileged little Shirker-in-Chief? What I haven’t read about in my own country’s media is about two crucial documents supporting the BBC/CBS story. The first is Barnes’ signed and sworn affidavit to a Texas court, from 1999, in which he testifies to the Air Guard fix–which (then) Texas Gov. George W. Bush, given the opportunity, declined to challenge.”

There is a second document in the U.S. Justice Department files, according to Palast, that confirms the story of how Gee Dubya got into the Guard. It fingers Barnes as the bag man in the deal even before he admitted his role in 1999.

“A lot of reporting went into this story,” Heyward said. “It’s not as if one person’s account was taken at face value.”

Barnes, in his statement, said: “I got a young man named George W. Bush into the Texas Air Guard–and I’m ashamed.” That’s not quite the whole story. Dubya just squeaked past his opponent and into the Texas governor’s mansion in 1994. Barnes was a major corporate lobbyist by this time.

He had a client—GTech Corp.—that held the contract to operate the Texas state lottery. Because of allegations of corruption, the company was about to lose the contract.

The Justice Department files hold a letter about Barnes. It says: “Governor Bush made a deal with Ben Barnes not to rebid [the GTech lottery contract] because Barnes could confirm that Bush had lied during the 1994 campaign.”

In that campaign, Bush had repeatedly denied there was any deal to keep him out of Vietnam, and the national press stopped asking questions about it. So what did Dubya do for Barnes? According to the letter from a tipster, “Barnes agreed never to confirm the story [of the draft dodging], and the governor talked to the chair of the lottery two days later, and she then agreed to support letting GTech keep the contract without a bid.”

GTech got its billion dollar deal without a bid, and Barnes got more than $23 million from his overjoyed client. Barnes denied that happened, but when he was confronted with the evidence, he ‘fessed up.

The alleged Killian documents indicated Bush’s old commander was being pressured to “sugarcoat” young Bush’s performance ratings and that Dubya disobeyed orders to take a mandatory pilot physical.

When Rather faced the BBC cameras, he offered this analogy: “It’s an obscene comparison,” he said, “but there was a time in South Africa when people would put flaming tires around people’s necks if they dissented. In some ways, the fear is that you will be necklaced here. You will have a flaming tire of lack of patriotism put around your neck.” No U.S. reporter who values his neck or career, he added, will “bore in on the tough questions.”

As Alex Jones, director of Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, observed: “The story of how this happened is going to be a much more interesting story than the veracity of these documents, and I hope CBS will tell it.”

As we posted in an Online Exclusive last week, however, MSNBC and the Associated Press reported: “CBS on Monday said it cannot vouch for the authenticity of documents used to support a 60 Minutes story about President Bush’s Vietnam-era national Guard service after several experts denounced them as fakes.

“The network said that while it was ‘deliberately misled,’ it was wrong to go on the air with a story that it could not substantiate,” MSNBC reported.

The report went on to say that a retired National Guard lieutenant colonel, Bill Burkett, supplied the documents attributed to the late Lt. Col. Jerry Killian.

Experts have supposedly criticized the documents because they appear to be computer generated, rather than typed on a 1970s typewriter.

CBS’ News division finally doubted the documents after Killian’s former secretary, Marian Carr Knox, “said she believed the memos were fake,” asserted MSNBC.

Rather said the basic premise was not questioned—that Bush had a “relatively cushy” Guard assignment and “failed to satisfy the requirement of his service,” MSNBC concluded.

Sources: Associated Press, Greg, MSNBC.

Enjoy The Rock River Times? Help spread the word!