Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Cool to Indifferent on Unclaimed Territory

I'm largely undecided about Glenn Greenwald's blog. I've read a couple of posts (and decided I don't like "Nitpicker") here and there. Generally I share Greenwald's concern for the Bush Administration's (lack of) record on protecting civil liberties. But the blog as a whole seems to attract more than its fair share of sufferers from Bush Derangement Syndrome, and that has always made me suspicious of it.

A case in point is this entry on the Rathergate controversy. Greenwald begins by apologizing for having refered to the documents as "fraudulent." In fact, he says, he doesn't know enough about the issues to say whether the "Rathergate" memo was a fake or not. All this was prompted by an email he received from Mary Mapes, one of those CBS "let go" as part of its damage control over the incident. Mapes, of course, stands by the story and argues that no one has ever been able to "prove" that the documents were faked. That the letter is disingenuous is immediately obvious to anyone with a passing knowledge of the subject. Mapes writes

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.

But this surely isn't the point! The documents have never been proven fake in the strictest sense of the word, no, but that hardly authenticates them! There is more than enough reason to doubt their authenticity that any credible news source would not have run a story based on them - or, having been confronted with their problems, would have immediately retracted. What Dan Rather did instead was insist in face of evidence that they were real. Only after some of CBS' document checkers went public with the fact that they had aired concerns did Rather investigate, and his investigation immediately turned up problems. Even then, he seemed strangely unphazed and insisted that the underlying story was right even if the documents could no longer be trusted. That would have been an acceptable defense had the story been based on a large amount of varied evidence, but it wasn't. The featured item in the story as it originially aired were the memos themselves. It was a story about the memos. If you present several pieces of evidence and one of them turns out to be fake, it casts doubt on your story to be sure, but you don't have to retract. If, however, your central piece of evidence turns out to be fake...well, then there's no option but to retract. If you still believe the underlying story (and in this case, I think most of us believe that Bush skipped out on guard duty, even if we can't exactly prove it), then fine - but you're obliged to restart the investigation before concluding on national TV that you were right all along!

It's really incredible to me that people are still questioning this. If you believe that Bush skipped out on his guard duty, fine. I believe it too. But you can't honestly carry on as though there were no problems with the story in question - and especially with CBS' reaction to criticism over it!

It's one thing to hate right-wing bloggers. But you don't build up any credibility by denying everything they say, right or wrong.

Mapes continues:

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.

Wrong. You were fired because you committed the unpardonable sin of letting your standards slip so that you could air a story that covered the president's service in the National Guard with skepticism. No one could have faulted you for covering this story if you'd had your facts in place. And no one could even have faulted you if, confronted with evidence that your facts weren't in place, you had immediately apologized and retracted. But you did neither. You stood by a document that you had ample reason to believe might not be authentic. That is a fireable offense.

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

That's a funny use of "fair and accurate." Again, if your documents had been certifiably authentic, they couldn't have gotten away with it. Indeed, the result would have been just the opposite: you would have kept your job, and there would have been egg on the faces of anyone who had criticized your story. Unfortunately, you let your standards slip and so opened yourself up to this kind of attack. I fail to see how right-wing bloggers are at fault for your lack of professional judgment?

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.

I completely agree that the Bush Administration was more comfortable with everyone just pointing the finger at the "liberal media." Certainly Mapes is right that the Bush people don't want Bush's National Guard duty to become a spotlight issue on its own merits - and precisely because there is no evidence that Bush was at his post, which is suspicious to say the least. But if a "legitimate investigation" would have found something damning, then one really wonders why CBS didn't find it and run with it? CBS could have saved everyone the trouble by getting its story right the first time, so why didn't they? What I'm getting at is this: the right-wing bloggers' versions of events fits a little too well to be easily dismissed. The idea being that evidence against Bush wasn't forthcoming, and time was running out. The countdown to election day was running, and people at CBS eager to get a scoop on Bush that would stick in time to affect the polls ran with the first story that came their way, relaxing journalistic standards to meet their self-imposed deadline. Do I have any proof? Well, no - but then neither do I have any proof that Bush skipped out on his National Guard duty. I believe it notwithstanding because it fits the circumstantial facts as I understand them - and the same goes for CBS here. CBS in general and Dan Rather in particular take a leftist slant to their news. Rather has been accused of bias his entire career - more than any other major network anchor by far. Coincidence? Maybe. But I say where there's smoke there's fire. Crunch that with the timing on this story, the irrational insistence that it was true in the face of evidence that it might not be, and the testimony from some fact-checkers that they had advised against running the story but the powers-that-be (meaning Mapes and Rather) went ahead with it anyway. Does it prove that Rather was trying to influence the election? Well no. No more than lack of documentation that Bush was AWOL proves that he was. But it definitely makes it easy to believe that he was. Again, if Mapes is right and there is damning evidence that an investigation would have turned up, then why couldn't CBS do a bit of a more thorough job and find some of it? It is for this that Mapes lost her job - for failing to find this evidence before running the story - not for simply broaching the topic!

In any case, Mapes herself gives away the farm with this line:

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.

That's a funny thing to say about a story based on the authenticity of these documents. Notice that again we have the "fake but accurate" standard at work. The content of the documents was confirmed...not the documents themselves. The documents accurately reflected the minute and unreported details... They did not stand as evidence of these details but just reflected them. All odd word choices for someone who claims to have full faith in the documents. She goes on to say that

we had the support of two veteran document and signature analysts who said they saw nothing in the papers to indicate they were fraudulent.

Maybe. But there were others who raised doubts. And thanks to sloppy fact-checking, the problems with the documents are now well-attested, ubiquitous online for all to see. Smooth move.

And this bit of folksy "I'm just a caveman" nails the coffin shut:

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.

Please! No one is asking you personally to be an expert on typesetting! The whole point is that when confronted with expert opinion that the documents might not be accurate you refused to look into it further. THAT's what opens you up to criticism, sweetie - not your lack of a post-graduate degree in document analysis!

The last paragraph is verbal acrobatics:

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.

YES! EXACTLY! Bush can't prove that he was at his post in 1972, and that is suspicious, no? That is the whole reaosn that people have their doubts about his guard service? Why should it be surprising that people apply the same standard to the documents you can't prove are accurate? When you make a claim - such as Bush's claim that he served his full term - that you can't back up, the natural response is suspicion.

The duplicity of this letter is quite obvious, in other words. What bothers me first is that Greenwald accepts it without comment, saying that he is simply giving her a platform. Why does that feel like letting her off on a technicality to me? The platform is still Greenwald's, and he is still ultimately responsible for the face his blog presents. There is plenty in her letter that would seem to need a response, but none is given.

Fair enough, I grudgingly suppose. What bothers me more is the tone of the comments. There are simply too many people as a percentage of the whole here who have made up their minds that either (a) the documents were authentic, never mind all the evidence that they might not be or (b) they were fake, but Karl Rove produced them in a fiendish plot to distract the public from the issue. Some people even shake their heads at Rove's "brilliance" here.

It's hugely implausible, people! But even supposing it were true, how, exactly, does that let CBS, Rather, and Mapes off the hook? That Karl Rove sent them fake documents and tricked them into running a story doesn't do a damn thing to improve their credibility here! Even THAT is completely consistent with a Mapes and Rather who are so anxious to get some dirt on Bush that they'll clutch at any straw! And Karl Rove is hardly responsible for the ease with which obviously suspicious documents pass through their fact-checking system. He is CERTAINLY NOT responsible for CBS' inability to apologize and retract when the public confronts them with doubts!

But that said, there's absolutely no evidence to back up this conspiracy theory in the first place, and in the second it doesn't seem very likely anyway. Circulating a fake document is risky even for Bush. The consequences of a backfire are enormous, and it doesn't seem like this kind of thing that would really be that hard to trace.

But even of those commenters who don't believe in the Rove conspiracy theory, there are way too many who simply accept in face of evidence that the documents must be authentic and that Mapes is the victim of a smear campaign.

Greenwald doesn't attract a very respectable, rational crowd, to put it mildly. And he himself seems way too eager to apologize for his non-statement that the documents were "fradulent" and let Mapes have her say. It's fair enough, admirable even, for him, confronted with a challenge, to backpeddle on the use of the word "fraudulent" and admit that he doesn't know enough about the issue to say either way. But now that the subject has been raised, it seems like a good occasion for him to educate himself on it, and I've seen no move in that direction.

Well, I'm a new reader, so perhaps I haven't seen the best of what he has to offer yet. But the view so far is not very promising.


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