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I was previously a constitutional law and civil rights litigator and am now a journalist. I am the author of three New York Times bestselling books -- "How Would a Patriot Act" (a critique of Bush executive power theories), "Tragic Legacy" (documenting the Bush legacy), and With Liberty and Justice for Some (critiquing America's two-tiered justice system and the collapse of the rule of law for its political and financial elites). My fifth book - No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA and the US Surveillance State - will be released on April 29, 2014 by Holt/Metropolitan.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Clarification on the CBS/National Guard controversy

(updated below - updated again)

My lengthy post from Friday regarding the collapsed "credibility" of the right-wing blogosphere included this paragraph (relevant phrase bolded):

These right-wing bloggers love to piously masquerade around as "media watchdogs," keeping a watchful eye on the "MSM" and compelling them to adhere to facts. And ever since their involvement in the use by Dan Rather of fraudulent documents, and then heightened by Charles Johnson's oh-so-monumental observation that a Reuters photograph of Lebanon had been photoshopped to give the appearance of more smoke during an Israeli air strike on Beirut, the media has largely recited this storyline.

One of the things I try to avoid when making an argument is to opine gratuitously on unrelated issues. Otherwise, what can happen very easily -- and often does -- is that the opinions about the unrelated issues will distract from the issue at hand. That was what I was attempting to do when referring to the controversy over the Rather documents -- namely, refer to that controversy in a purely descriptive, neutral and opinion-free way in order not to provoke a rehashing of the arguments over that matter (and thereby distract from the actual issues I wanted to raise in my post).

But by referring to the documents used by CBS as "fraudulent," I achieved the opposite of my goal by making it seem -- unintentionally -- as though I side with CBS's accusers and believe that those documents are, in fact, "fraudulent." I wasn't blogging at the time of that controversy and did not pay close attention to it at all. As a result, I don't have anywhere near the information about all of the relevant issues which would be required to form an opinion on whether those documents are fraudulent or authentic, whether, if there was a mistake, it was negligent, reckless, deliberate, or anything else. As I said, I was attempting only to identify the controversy to which I was referring, not attempting to opine on who was right.

But my statement provoked objections in comments as well as by e-mail to my use of the term "fraudulent." One of the e-mails I received was from Mary Mapes, the former CBS producer responsible for the story. She complained that I appeared to be endorsing what she considers to be the myth that the documents in question have, in fact, been proven to be fakes.

Since she is one of the people most personally affected by this matter -- and since I think she raises some interesting issues in the process of objecting -- I offered to post her e-mail to me as a response to my (unintended) claim that those documents were "fraudulent," and she agreed. Following is her e-mail to me from Saturday:

Glenn-

I was fascinated by your column on rightwing blogger inaccuracies and what appears to be the growing acceptance of the fact that these people are completely irresponsible in their repeated campaigns to discredit journalists. Your points are excellent, your analysis was virtually flawless, but I have to point out something I disagree with strongly.

In your posting, you make reference to Dan Rather's use of "fraudulent documents." Those documents have never been proved "fraudulent," even after a months-long multi-million dollar investigation led by a Bush administration-friendly panel that tried mightily to prove the blogger pack right.

I am the producer of that story, the person accused by rightwing bloggers of everything from being"obsessed" with hurting George W. Bush to having bad hair. Okay, the hair part is probably true. But I was fired unfairly and have been hounded by this crowd since 2004 because I commited the unpardonable sin of attempting to cover the president's service in the National Guard with skepticism.

Sadly, I worked for a news organization that had become little more than a corporate brand. My bosses didn't have the fortitude that the editors and leaders at AP did. I spent 25 years in journalism, years in which I broke stories such as the Abu Ghraib abuses. I won awards for excellence and had a flawless reputation prior to the rightwing attacks. I trust I don't need to list Dan's decades of stellar work to indicate the heartbreaking unfairness of the attacks on him.

The right's vicious and coordinated attack on our story was a historical first, the first time these people tried to subvert reality by smearing journalists responsible for nothing more than fair and accurate reporting. It worked brilliantly as a political tactic, allowing the subject of Bush's service to go unexamined leading into the 2004 election. Who would dare to work that story after seeing us have our heads handed to us? People who knew we were right were afraid to come forward. They still are.

Why do you think the Bush administration never pursued an investigation into what the rightwing blogosphere deemed "forgery"? Don't you find that odd? It would seem to me that if there was a forgery, that would be legally actionable. In fact, if someone forged documents, then President Bush is owed a full investigation and a chance to right a great wrong. I support that completely. You know, early on, there were cries from angry Republicans in Congress for a formal investigation, but the Bush administration demurred. That's too bad, but then I believe the Bush people don't want anyone examining the record or the memos too closely. They know what a legitimate investigation would find.

There is a great deal more to be reported on this story. I believe today, as I did then, that the president's approach to war, his seeming lack of understanding of the sacrifice involved or the consequences of an unthinking policy are outgrowths of his experiences (or lack of them) during Vietnam. Many Americans learned those lessons back in 1968. He is learning them now, the hard way.

I hate to go over this stuff again, because I am tired of it. But here goes... our primary reasoning behind running the documents was that the public had a right to see them. Our intense investigation of the documents showed that they accurately reflected the minute and unreported details of Bush's record, the content of the documents was confirmed by key people in a position to know what actions Lt. Col. Jerry Killian had taken with regard to Bush and the memos confirmed the reports we got from many people within the National Guard about the reality of Bush's service as well as the division within the Guard leadership as to how his case should be handled. Further, we had the support of two veteran document and signature analysts who said they saw nothing in the papers to indicate they were fraudulent.

Our report was not aired in an irresponsible anti-Bush frenzy. This was just plain old shoe leather reporting, the result of interviews and analysis that took place over the course of years.

I am not a document analyst. I don't know "kerning" from corn on the cob. But unlike the right wing bloggers, I don't pretend to. I am a reporter. I deal in facts, interviews, differing versions of events, content, context and historical record.

I realize that critics of the story will snort that the documents have never been proven "true" or "authenticated." They're right. And that puts our work squarely in the same category as George W. Bush's assertions about his service in the National Guard. He can't prove he did what he said he did. He can't "prove" where he was in 1972. He can't "prove" he got into the Guard without help. The existing records show that George W. Bush can't come close to "proving" he served out his full commitment in the Guard.

There is, however, more evidence supporting the CBS version of events than the President's. Again, why haven't media outlets pushed our commander in chief to give full and complete answers and provide evidence as to where he was and what he did during a time of war?

It is my profound hope that someday people such as yourself will see that what happened in the Bush National Guard document controversy was no different than any of the other misguided blog attacks you cite in your column.

The CBS debacle was just the first in a long line of inaccurate attacks by these irresponsible and hateful people who couldn't care less about finding the truth.

They care about finding an "angle," a distraction, a new victim to try to take down, another reputation to destroy for sport.

Someday we will know the facts of the Bush story. I believe I am going to be more comfortable with my reporting on the subject than any rightwing blogger or anyone within the mainstream media who covered the story simply as a controversy over media accuracy.

This was a straight out old-fashioned story of the unfair advantage that privilege and position gave certain young men during the Vietnam years. Period. Thanks for your work in putting the rightwing blogosphere under the magnifying glass. Please open your mind to the possibility that these people have done even more damage and have more victims than you originally considered.

-Mary Mapes

I pass that along to give Mapes her say, not to endorse (or reject) what she says about the documents in question. I do, though, apologize for inadvertently expressing an opinion for which I didn't (and don't) have a sufficient basis.

I also will note that in the course of blogging, I have developed an opinion of the credibility of Mapes' accusers in the right-wing blogosphere which is -- for reasons I have amply documented -- entirely consistent with what she describes. They are some of the least credible, most dishonest and most irresponsible people around.

Along those lines, see this very clear, straightforward and commendable acknowledgment of error with regard to the Jamil Hussein "scandal" from Austin Bay, with whom I agree on virtually nothing but who generally conducts himself with integrity and intellectual honesty. That conduct makes him such a conspicuous exception in his habitat.

Contrast Bay's candor with the bitter, petulant, and unrepentant foot-stomping from most other right-wing bloggers who perpetuated the AP hoax (or the forced, reluctant "correction" last night from Michelle Malkin -- who originally vowed: "I’m not apologizing for anything" -- only to now say that while she "regrets" her error, it was justified on the ground that she was merely "relay[ing] information from multiple sources").

Mapes' e-mail raises another important point. While I do not have an opinion about how CBS conducted itself during that matter (again, because I just lack the information needed to form such an opinion), it is very encouraging to see AP standing up for its journalists and refusing to be cowed by these frenzied, drooling lynch mobs whose only goal is to destroy the credibility of any media outlets perceived as insufficiently reverent of the President and his war.

AP's defense of its journalism extends beyond its Jamil Hussein vindication to the even more important matter of the lawless (and ongoing) detention by the Bush administration of its photojournalist, Bilal Hussein. That arrest by the U.S. military followed on the heels of continuous accusations from right-wing pundits that Hussein's journalism demonstrated a sympathy for, if not active participation with, Iraqi "terrorists." AP has repeatedly demanded that Hussein be charged with a crime or released, but neither has occurred. AP should be supported and encouraged in its refusal to be cowed by attacks of this sort.

Whatever the truth is about the CBS/Rather dispute, those who were responsible for milking that controversy have proven that they themselves are entirely unconstrained by facts and are willing to spew extremely serious accusations with complete recklessness as to whether those accusations are accurate. That fact doesn't resolve the CBS/Rather controversy, but it is does demonstrate that the large right-wing blogs are the least qualified to serve as a watchdog on anything having to do with the truth.

UPDATE: On a related note, I have a post at C&L regarding the big "scoop" by Pajamas Media that "Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s Supreme Leader, is dead." Seventy-two hours later, this "report" is still exclusive to Pajamas since nobody else has reported it. They have retracted nothing (though they have back-pedalled furiously).

Oddly, the truth-in-media warriors in the right-wing blogosphere are defeaningly silent about this -- at least they have been ever since Michelle Malkin's Hot Air pronounced on the day the exclusive was unveiled that "This is either going to be a two-ton feather in Pajamas’s cap or a major embarrassment."

UPDATE II: The "Kerry dining alone" hoax perpetrated this week by the right-wing blogosphere isn't the most significant story ever, but their reaction to having their claims exposed as false by Greg Sargent -- much like their reaction when it was revealed that their anti-AP accusations were patently false -- tells you all you need to know about their character and credibility.

UPDATE III: Ed Morrissey, about whom I would say (and have said) essentially the same thing as I said above about Austin Bay, also demonstrates what an honest and credible person does when making errors and/or casting false accusations. About the "Kerry dining alone" story, Ed said:

Bloggers operate on credibility, just like anyone else, and have to answer for their missteps. . . . After some arguments over the provenance of the picture, which dissipated, Greg Sargent did some legwork at TPM Muckraker that pretty much demolishes the notion that Kerry couldn't buy a friend in Iraq: . . . .

It's an unfortunate human failing to take pleasure in the embarrassment of those we do not like, and sometimes the temptation to do so leads all of us across the political spectrum to do it. In this case, I did it, and I should have resisted the impulse. I apologize for getting this one wrong.

And about the Jamil Hussein "scandal": "Bloggers erred by presuming too quickly that Jamil Hussein did not exist at all, a mistake that I noted in my post yesterday would damage the credibility of the bloggers' focus on the larger question of Hussein's credibility."

Morrissey says some things about the broader AP controversy with which I disagree, but nonetheless, the depressingly few right-wing bloggers who conduct themselves with basic forthrightness and decency stand in such stark contrast to the overwhelming majority (particularly the largest ones) who continuously do the opposite.

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