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Case Study 1: Rathergate
My first case study is the episode known as Rathergate. It represents one of the great journalistic frauds of our time. It is a case study in the fabrication of fake news and partisan bias. The Rathergate scandal erupted from a 60 Minutes Wednesday segment rushed to air on the evening of September 8, 2004, in time to influence the approaching presidential election pitting George W. Bush against John Kerry, as it was clearly intended to do. The segment consisted of two parts that didn’t quite fit together except in their antipathy to Bush.
In the first part, based on an interview with the vice chairman of Kerry’s national finance committee, Rather essentially claimed that political influence had been brought to bear to secure Bush’s admission to the Texas Air National Guard as an interceptor jet pilot in 1968. In the second part, based on documents supposedly from the “personal file” of Bush’s commanding officer, Rather reported that Bush had defied an order to take a physical necessary to maintain his flight status and, among other things, thus failed to discharge his military obligations. The segment was produced and written by Mary Mapes.
In researching the story, Mapes had interviewed witnesses with firsthand knowledge of the Texas Air National Guard’s personnel needs. She was told that they needed pilots at the time and that no influence would have been necessary to secure Bush’s admission. The documents on which Rather based the second segment proved to be fabricated on Microsoft Word in the computer era, not typewritten in the early 1970s by Bush’s commanding officer or anyone else. The content and format of the documents also betrayed their fabrication. The story began to fall apart within a few hours of its broadcast. On September 20, 12 days after the broadcast, Rather extended an apology “personally and directly” to viewers for his inability to authenticate the documents.
To investigate what happened, CBS commissioned a panel chaired by former attorney general Richard Thornburgh and former Associated Press president Lou Boccardi. Released in January 2005, the report provides evidence proving beyond a reasonable doubt that the entire segment was false and/or fraudulent from beginning to end.
Mapes was promptly fired as were three other executives with responsibility for the story. Rather stepped down from the CBS Evening News in March 2005 and was let go from the network the following year.Writing about the 60 Minutes segment on the morning after the broadcast on Power Line, I posted a brief item linking to the 60 Minutes story and the PDF copies of the documents that CBS had made available with the online version of the story. Thinking there might be something more to be said about it than what 60 Minutes had reported, I called my post “The 61st Minute” and published it on Power Line at 7:51 a.m.
Together with my colleague John Hinderaker, I updated the post with additional information provided by readers and fellow bloggers through the early afternoon. By noon, anyone following along online could see that the 60 Minutes segment had been based on fabricated documents and falsehoods. The 60 Minutes segment, reported with great earnestness by Rather, had been produced by knaves or fools, or both.
Rather and Mapes nevertheless persuaded CBS News to stick with the story for nearly two weeks before Rather rendered his on-air apology. In his 2012 memoir Rather Outspoken — that’s the title he gave it; it should have been Rather Full of It — Rather reveals that he didn’t mean it. Both he and Mapes stand behind the story and the authenticity of the documents.
Mapes too wrote a memoir standing by the story (Truth and Duty, published in late 2005). In 2015 Hollywood made a film out of Mapes’s memoir — starring Robert Redford as Rather and Cate Blanchett as Mapes. They called the film Truth, purporting to tell the Rathergate story from the inside.
Despite Mapes’s responsibility for perpetrating a shocking journalistic fraud, the film portrays Mapes as a heroic figure. Mapes not only gets a stellar actress to play her, she is portrayed as a martyr to the First Amendment and a victim of corporate cowardice. By contrast, the film portrays the attorneys who supported the work of Thornburg and Boccardi as cartoon villains. The events depicted in the film had happened only 10 years before, but the ignorance of the reviewers who took the film at face value demonstrated that the truth behind Truth was as obscure as ancient Greek history.
When President Trump refers to fake news, he has in mind something like the cast of characters and the insane bias that brought us Rathergate.
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A very good summary of “Rathergate”. Of course, it sufficiently muddied the water so no one could fairly assess if the original allegations against Bush had any merit.
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