Dan Rather, speaking with an acolyte, said, “When you stop asking questions, that’s when the American people lose.”
June 2004: The CBS 60 Minutes team was busy digging into a potential story about the Bush/Bin Laden connections in the leadup to the 911 terrorist attacks when a different story dropped into their laps. Several competing news agencies had been poking around the Bin Laden story. The new lead—questioning George W. Bush’s military service record between 1968-74—was off the radar. This story would be a CBS coup. The major premise of the story involved Bush’s preferential treatment in getting into the National Guard to train as a pilot when there were a plethora of battle ready pilots returning home from Viet Nam who were trying to get into the Guard. And, once safely accepted into the guard, there was the issue of Bush’s service record and the months during which he completely dropped off the records and failed to complete expected requirements of service.
The 2015 film, Truth, recreates the frenzy as the CBS news team shifted immediately to verify all the possible angles of the new story. Their hurdles were substantial and included political and family loyalties, deceased witnesses, and extremely ill or fragile witnesses. Their strongest witness, retired Lt. Col. Bill Burkett, handed over copies of documents, however, he did not have originals and refused to divulge his sources for the copies he had. Four hand-writing experts confirmed the validity of the signatures on the documents.
September 8, 2004: The United States was in the last lap of campaigning for the presidential election between incumbent, George W. Bush and democratic challenger, John Kerry. Lauded anchor, Dan Rather, aired the Bush military story on what he called “the gold standard” for news reporting, 60 Minutes. The blowback was immediate. Online activists jumped on the report. The arguments all came down to the validity of the documents. While CBS had rigorously vetted signatures on those documents, the actual documents themselves were dismissed as forgeries because allegedly, military typewriters of the 1970s had no superscript function. In other words, the 7th would appear as the 7th. The entire argument came down to fonts, typeface, and spacing of letters. The substance of the accusations got lost in technology.
The Aftermath: CBS News retracted the story. Dan Rather stepped down from his anchor position and left the network in 2006. Three news executives from the 60 Minutes team were fired. In 2005, an independent panel concluded that “CBS had failed to follow basic journalistic principles in the preparation and reporting of the piece.”
Long-term Results: Fifteen-minutes of fame undid Dan Rather’s 40 illustrious years as a distinguished journalist. It also tarnished the reputation of “main-stream media” and gave a jump-start to shock media that now stand on an even platform with what used to be considered venerable news agencies. It didn’t help that this story aired in the run-up to an important national election. The facts of the story have never been disproved, merely the documents used to substantiate the story. But the timing made it appear that CBS was out to skewer George W. Bush. In effect, the story undoubtedly gained Bush the sympathy votes he needed to scrape by in a tight election.
One thing is certain: News reporting involves asking questions–difficult questions. Questions lead reporters to the truth. Lee Hamilton of the Detroit News opines that “Curious, skeptical journalists who point out inconsistencies, draw attention to mistakes, call out misleading statements, and identify outright lies serve a larger purpose: They provide citizens what they need to know in order to be a good citizen, and public officials what they need in order to do their work well.”
But of course, the 45th president of the United States, in lockstep with Fox “News”, Breitbart “News” Network, and a host of other conspiracy based outlets, don’t concern themselves with the truth.