CBS News and Dan Rather stood fast Wednesday night, refusing to back down from a “60 Minutes” report that has engulfed the Eye in a credibility storm and put it smack in the middle of brutal election-year politics.
Launching an aggressive counter-offensive on and off the air, the news division said its story alleging that President Bush tried to sidestep his National Guard service commitments was true and that it vetted the authenticity of four memos used to back up the report.
Still, CBS News said it would redouble efforts to answer all questions about the documents, which are at the center of a media frenzy. At this point, the news org says it has no evidence that the memos, reportedly written by Bush’s former commander, are forgeries.
A spate of stories by other news orgs suggests that some of the experts used by CBS to authenticate the documents raised red flags with “60 Minutes” producers. There also has been a furious debate over whether the typeface used in the memos was available on typewriters in the early 1970s, which CBS says it was.
“The thrust of our report is right,” Rather said during a rebuttal segment on Wednesday’s edition of “60 Minutes,” where the initial report aired a week ago.
“If we uncover any information to the contrary, rest assured we will report that also,” Rather said.
Rather’s reports Wednesday night on “60” and “Evening News” included an interview with Marion Carr Knox, secretary to the late Lt. Col. Jerry Killian, author of the memos. She told Rather that while she didn’t believe the documents were genuine, she remembers her boss writing other memos suggesting that Bush tried to use his political clout to avoid service commitments.
CBS News prexy Andrew Heyward said the fact that Knox was interviewed proved that the news division was doing everything it could to report all sides of the controversy, considering Knox herself didn’t believe the memos were authentic — an opinion not necessarily favorable to CBS.
Earlier in the day in Washington, the document drama became a GOP dog pile with incensed Republican lawmakers demanding that the Eye retract the story. Another GOP politico called for an investigation by the House Commerce Committee, which regulates the broadcast biz.
Prominent House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) said the net’s credibility was on the line.
“CBS does a very good job at getting answers from questions, but it’s not very good at giving answers to questions,” Hastert spokesman John Feehery told Daily Variety.
“They have to prove that their sources are telling the truth, especially when they have such a bad reputation to begin with, a reputation of liberal bias — both ’60 Minutes’ and Dan Rather. Journalism is supposed to be beholden to objectivity. To be unfair is unacceptable,” Feehery said.
CBS News said it would never reveal a confidential source.
“Our credibility is certainly very important,” Heyward told Daily Variety.
“We are going to report what we know. We wouldn’t have put the story on the air if we didn’t believe it. I’m not sure the forensics debate will ever be resolved. I’m hoping there will be another way,” Heyward said.
In a lengthy statement, CBS said news stories had misrepresented some of the statements made by experts who consulted for the Eye on the Killian memos.
While TV biz insiders empathized with CBS’ plight, they questioned why the news net waged such a vigorous defense, instead of standing back and conducting an internal inquiry. They said Rather — who has become the face of the saga — has a history of pushing the envelope. He also has been a favorite target of the political right.
“CBS walked out to the end of the branch and started sawing,” said one TV news exec. “Dan is convinced that the story is true and that George Bush shirked his duties to the National Guard. The documents were only one part of the overall story, but that’s a difference the rest of the world doesn’t understand.”
The Bush administration took a backseat in the matter until Wednesday, when GOP politicos came out in force against CBS.
House Majority whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) fired off a scathing missive to Heyward.
“We urge CBS to retract its story, and to disclose the identities of the people who have used your network to deceive your viewers in the final weeks of a presidential election,” stated the letter, which was signed by Blunt and 38 other Republican House members.