CBS News holds firm on content of memos

NEW YORK — It’s even got a name — Memogate.

The controversy surrounding CBS News and a volatile “60 Minutes” report impugning President Bush’s National Guard service appeared far from over Thursday.

The Eye undertook a counter-offensive midweek, saying that even if the documents are a forgery, they accurately reflect what people involved with Bush’s National Guard service remember about his conduct.

“The information in them is correct,” the former secretary to the commander of Bush’s squadron told CBS News anchor Dan Rather Wednesday night, even though she said she didn’t type the specific documents in question.

Still, the issue of whether the actual documents used in a “60 Minutes” report last week are authentic or forged raged on.

Media biz insiders said they were mystified as to why CBS News didn’t simply announce it would bring in an independent authority to conduct an investigation, a common practice.

Elsewhere, some CBS News correspondents and Eye affils were bombarded with angry emails and calls. CBS issued a lengthy statement that affils could give to viewers.

Wide-ranging effects

TV news execs and media critics said it will hurt the entire business if the documents are indeed fake, not to mention CBS News as a whole and CBS News managing editor-anchor Rather.

“If you are going to live by the document, you have to die by the document,” said Jack Shafer, who writes about the media for Slate. “I would say they are not doing themselves any favors. It’s like stepping on a banana peel.”

On Thursday, neither Rather nor CBS News prexy Andrew Heyward would comment on the continuing controversy.

Wednesday night, Heyward and Rather said they stood by the story, though they conceded for the first time that legitimate questions had been raised about the authenticity of the four memos reportedly written by Bush’s former commander, the late Lt. Col. Jerry Killian.

Staying on story

Heyward said the net would redouble its efforts to answer the many questions raised by news orgs about the legitimacy of the memos, but that the thrust of the story is true, which is that Bush used his political clout to duck his Guard obligations. He said CBS would continue to aggressively cover the story.

New Yorker media writer Ken Auletta questioned CBS’ strategy.

“We’re supposed to get all the facts right, and when we don’t we are supposed to admit it,” Auletta said.

And in Washington, Republican politicos issued blistering criticism.

“First Rather wanted to blame the Republicans, then he wanted to blame the media, when all along he should have been blaming himself. Maybe they should stop trying to get the president and start getting the facts,” said John Feehery, spokesman for House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.).

CBS News insiders said it may not be possible to resolve the question of whether the docs are real, since they are photocopies. Instead, it will be a forensic guessing game.

“Maybe CBS just figures the whole thing will go away. But when you’re going up against the Bush folks, they are a formidable opponent and they are not going to let this go away,” one TV news exec said.

Shifting focus

“(The Bush administration has) managed to completely take the focus off the content of the story and on to Dan Rather,” the exec continued.

There’s no love lost between Rather and the Bush family, but Rather insists he’s just reporting the facts.

Industryites are mixed as to what effect the controversy could have on Rather’s career or standing as anchor of “Evening News.”

The Eye’s news division is refusing to disclose the source of the documents, and declined to comment Thursday on reports that it was former National Guardsman Bill Burkett.

The New York Times and other publications reported this week that Burkett lives not far from a Kinko’s copy shop in Abilene, Texas. Another Guard officer interviewed by “60 Minutes” for the story told the Times he was shown the memos and that they bore a facsimile stamp of the Kinko’s location.

Burkett made news earlier this year when he told the media he saw National Guard officers and reps for Bush throw away documents in 1997 relating to Bush’s service record.

Files ordered released

In an unrelated twist, a federal judge in Washington on Thursday ordered the Pentagon to find and make public by next week any unreleased files pertaining to Bush’s National Guard service. Order resulted from a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed by the Associated Press.

The question of Bush’s service record in the Guard has long been an issue.

“If somebody faked the documents, they did it to get good play on the story,” said Slate’s Shafer. “CBS wasn’t vigilant enough.”

(Susan Crabtree in Washington contributed to this report.)

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