Monday, September 20, 2004

Oh, give me a break:

A cardinal rule of investigative reporting is to never trust a photocopy of a document you're using as a basis for a story. It could be fake.

Yet photocopies, examined by experts consulted by CBS News, are exactly what Dan Rather and producer Mary Mapes used to illustrate their 60 Minutes story questioning President Bush's military service. Now it turns out that executives at 60, long considered the gold standard of investigative reporting, may have been duped into believing bogus memos.

How could that happen? Simple, producer Josh Howard explains. On the morning of the Sept. 8 broadcast — as 60 Minutes producers and lawyers discussed the memos' authenticity in New York — CBS correspondent John Roberts interviewed White House spokesman Dan Bartlett in Washington. CBS had given Bartlett the memos.

Bartlett didn't question their authenticity but in about six instances used information in them to bolster his argument that Bush served honorably in the Texas Air National Guard. Roberts called Howard after his interview and, Howard says, reported that "Bartlett had no quarrel with the authenticity of the documents; in fact, he read into them stuff that supported the White House position. We took that to mean, 'Well, guess there's no issue here.' "

(USA TODAY obtained copies of the memos shortly after the 60 Minutes broadcast and reported that the next day. The newspaper's editors, like those at other media, relied in part on the fact that the White House did not challenge the memos' authenticity and released copies after the broadcast.)

This argument is so breathtakingly stupid, it's hard to believe that USA Today had the gall to put it before the public. It is not the job of the White House to fact-check documents for the news media. The White House spokesman is not equipped to do this, nor would he have the time in the few minutes that he'd have to examine the memos. This is why CBS News and USA Today are supposed to have editors and fact-checkers and all the time in the world to consult with document experts. To even suggest that you were justified in using obvious fakes because the White House spokesman didn't point this out to you, is buck-passing at its most sickening.

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