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Monday, September 24, 2007

I'm s-. Hmm. I'm s-. Hmm. IT'S ALL YOUR FAULT!

Today's episode of Little Miss Know-it-All: It's not my fault! Quick, blame that guy over there!

Dan Rather is suing CBS. He believes that the network violated his contract and intended to damage him "in order to curry favour with the Bush Administration".

Now, this is quite a suggestion that should require a significant amount of evidence before anyone takes it seriously. Fortunately, Mr. Rather has Mary Mapes on his side.

If you've never heard of Ms. Mapes, it's because Mr. Rather took the brunt of the public anger after she produced a 60 Minutes story based on documents that she now says are maybe fake but accurate. She did all of the research, reporting, legwork and writing. Mr. Rather read the script she prepared and did the on-camera interviews. Then he took the fall when it turned out that Ms. Mapes had screwed up big time.

Ms. Mapes had been known as an excellent producer. She broke the story about the investigation into Abu Ghraib. I don't think there was any question that she was considered to be a really good journalist. In fact, that was part of the problem. She was desperate to do a story about the president's (lack of) National Guard service. I still don't understand why she thought this was such a great story that it had to be rushed to air. Didn't everyone already know this? (Late-breaking news: Barack Obama's a Democrat!)

Broadcast journalism relies on producers behind the scenes. They do almost all of the work. Then a famous person like Peter Gzowski or Mr. Rather pops in and takes all of the glory. If I sound a little bitter, it's because I did this job for several years. The goal is to make the show look like the host is doing all of the work. You should never see the men behind the curtain.

Journalists know this, which is why they tried to explain Ms. Mapes' role in the whole thing. However, this particular scandal played out on the Internet, where people called it "Rathergate". Nobody cared about Mary Mapes. This might have been the hardest thing for her to accept. She can't seem to go away quietly. She pops up about once a year to claim that:

  1. She was railroaded by CBS.
  2. The story is true, even if all of the evidence was faked.
  3. Right-wing bloggers are jerks.
And now she's back again. I'm sure CBS's lawyers are licking their chops, because nothing Ms. Mapes says in Mr. Rather's defense is consistent with journalistic principles.

Ms. Mapes claims, once again, that conservatives wanted to destroy anyone who challenged their worldview. If this is true, it is nothing more than another reason to be extra careful to have really solid evidence. Journalists cannot be seen to be biased. Their reporting must hold together under scrutiny.

Ms. Mapes still does not understand that she made a mistake. A normal person would hang his head and go on to something else. She, on the other hand, is determined to keep dragging this out over and over again. Further investigation by a number of news organizations has found that:
  1. The information in the documents could be true. That is, some of them reflect the opinions that people had at the time. The documents themselves are most likely fakes.
  2. When viewers suggested that the documents might be forgeries, Ms. Mapes and her team tried to find experts who would support the original story. The proper response would have been to have a separate team re-research the story to determine if it was accurate.
  3. On air, CBS News staff, including Mr. Rather, defended the work. "We stand by our story" is standard in the news industry, but not when additional research has created nagging doubts within the organization.
Ms. Mapes now apparently believes that it is possible that the documents are real, so it should be OK for journalists to use them. The last time I checked, "it's possible that it's true" is not the journalism standard. It's possible for anything to be true.

The story itself probably was true, but that doesn't mean it's OK to use forged documents to prove it. No real reporter would ever say that. The fact that Ms. Mapes still doesn't understand this after all this time tells me that she's in serious denial. I hope she testifies for Mr. Rather. This is going to be fun to watch.