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Examining CBS' National Guard Documents; Kitty Kelley's Trial by Media Fire

Aired September 19, 2004 - 11:30   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST (voice-over): Fact or forgery. Why did "60 Minutes" air the story on President Bush's National Guard service after some of its own experts warned the documents involved might be fake? Why has Dan Rather continued to defend the story when even the secretary for Bush's Guard unit says the memos are bogus? Can CBS' credibility survive this huge black eye, and how did a handful of bloggers get the goods before the mainstream press?

Plus, Kitty Kelley's trial by media fire.


KURTZ: Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES, where our critical lens today zooms in on CBS News, Dan Rather and the furor over those alleged, purported and now highly suspect documents, challenging President Bush's National Guard service. I'm Howard Kurtz.

Eleven days after that controversial "60 Minutes" report, the question remained, was CBS duped? Are the documents fake? And how on Earth could this have happened? Rather stood by the story at first.


DAN RATHER, CBS NEWS ANCHOR: What's in the "60 Minutes" report CBS News believes to be true and believes the documents are authentic.


KURTZ: By mid-week, Rather told me he now questioned their authenticity. His doubts came after interviewing Marian Carr Knox, a secretary who worked with the late Colonel Jerry Killian, Bush's squadron commander in the Guard, and the alleged author of the memos. After "The Dallas Morning News" found the 86-year-old Knox, Rather sat down with her for "60 Minutes" on Wednesday.


RATHER: You've seen the memos that we broadcast, these memos that we got...

MARIAN CARR KNOX: I did not type those memos.

RATHER: You didn't type these memos? KNOX: No. And it's not the form that I would have used.


KURTZ: As reporters continue to investigate this mess, the editorial pages have ripped Rather's network. "The Wall Street Journal," "Chicago Tribune" and "The Los Angeles Times," which said, quote, "CBS News was had."

So how did CBS handle the original report and the growing doubts? And is all this overshadowing the larger questions about the president?

Well, joining us now, Geneva Overholser, professor of University of Missouri journalism Washington program, and former editor of "The Des Moines Register." Andrew Sullivan, senior editor of "The New Republic," whose daily Web log can be found at And Frank Sesno, professor of public policy and communications at George Mason University, and CNN's former Washington bureau chief.

And "Time" magazine, cover story today, as you might imagine, CBS, quote, "Who owns the truth"?

Andrew Sullivan, do you believe this was sloppy journalism or partisan journalism?

ANDREW SULLIVAN, WWW.ANDREWSULLIVAN.COM: Both, probably. And I think it was sloppiness that because they so wanted the story to be true, they kind of overlooked all the major doubts of it.

That's something we all do. There are all great stories we find that are called too good to check. But our job is to check them. And I think that partisanship kind of overcame their professional worries.

KURTZ: CBS now says, well, you know, the documents may be fake, but the charges against Bush are true. Can they get away with that?

GENEVA OVERHOLSER, UNIVERSITY OF MISSOURI: Well, they won't be able to get away with that, because they do appear to be had. But I would like to say, Howie, I think there's some truth here to the fact that there is so much else we ought to be focusing on in this election, and that fundamentally, the story seems to be true. The fact is, if their documents were forged, it almost doesn't matter because...


KURTZ: It almost doesn't matter? They told the American people these are real documents.

OVERHOLSER: No, what I mean is, it almost doesn't matter that the story is true, because people won't pay any attention to it. I'm with you, Howie.

KURTZ: Oh. I report this morning in "The Washington Post," Frank Sesno, that the key moment here was nine hours before air time when CBS did an interview with Dan Bartlett, the White House communication director, who didn't deny that the documents were real. He had only had them for three hours, and Josh Howard, the executive program of the program, told me "at that point, we completely abandoned the process of authenticating the documents. Obviously looking back on it, that was a mistake. I suppose you could say we let our guard down."

What happens in television when there's a hot story that everybody wants to get the scoop on.

FRANK SESNO, FORMER CNN WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF: Well, first of all, let me say, at least for once, and at last, CBS is being forthcoming, because that comment reflects that.

What happens is there is an incredible growing pressure, almost a tidal wave, to get on the air and make sure you got it. And that's what seasoned professionals know to do, they know how to stop that tidal wave and how to say, wait a minute, we haven't vetted these documents. We're giving it to the White House how many hours before we're going on the story? Who's had a chance to comment on them? What are our document experts saying?

This is a very serious problem for CBS News.

KURTZ: I talked to three of the document experts hired by CBS. All of them said they had not authenticated the documents. Two of them said they warned CBS repeatedly, by phone, by e-mail, there were serious problems here, a lot of red flags. One of them, Emily Will, also talked to ABC News' Brian Ross. Let's take a look.


EMILY WILL, DOCUMENT EXPERT: I told them that all the questions I was asking them at that time, which was Tuesday night, they were going to be asked by hundreds of other document examiners on Thursday if they ran that story.


KURTZ: How does a news organization barge ahead in the face of that kind of warning, by someone that they have hired?

SULLIVAN: Because they're on the chase, and because they don't want to listen to what people tell them. We all -- look, the Bush administration didn't want to listen when people said there might not be WMDs. We're all human beings. We all have a one-track mind and we try and filter out things that disagree with us.

The point of journalists is to be exactly the opposite of that, and to ask all these hard questions.

SESNO: In their defense, though, in their defense, though, there were others who were saying the documents are accurate. And that they are authentic.

SULLIVAN: I've never met -- I haven't read a single... SESNO: According to CBS, it was one of the things that brought Rather out of the block so fast, was that they had other authenticators who were saying they were...

SULLIVAN: But then "The Washington Post" this morning puts the (UNINTELLIGIBLE) original documents up against the ones that CBS had, and they look like night and day to me.

SESNO: I couldn't agree -- but that's hindsight, that's what we know now, and that's why it all looks so bad.

OVERHOLSER: That was important reporting, because what we need to do is get to the bottom of this, and CBS has stonewalled, which is so...


SULLIVAN: The story is not just that they screwed up to begin with. It's their absolute refusal to acknowledge that straight away. Now, I don't know about you, but if somebody at "The Washington Post" put out a story with fake documents and that was kind of revealed, would you still be sticking by them a week and a half after?

KURTZ: They were slow to acknowledge the possibility that they were had. I talked to Dan Rather several times, and he firmly, passionately believed that these memos are real.

SESNO: They were more than slow to acknowledge that they may have been had. They made a gigantic mistake by not even leaving a little bit of wiggle room. I heard you talking about this earlier. You know, we in journalism, we know this, we understand. We do this everyday. So how he could step back in front of the camera himself and say, absolutely, even after these questions, rather specific questions early on had been raised, I don't understand.

OVERHOLSER: One of the problems here is that there aren't as many of us who were waiting to stem the tide when these stories start. Twenty-four-hour cable, the Internet.


OVERHOLSER: I know it, but I think even the quote/unquote mainstream, conventional media have been affected by this and the rush is greater...

SULLIVAN: But they're also arrogant and big headed, and they think they don't have to do what other...

OVERHOLSER: Unlike most journalists?

SULLIVAN: Well, I think Dan Rather is in a bit of a class of his own here. I mean, someone who thinks that anything that he says has to go on the air. I'm sorry, but it's time someone called him on it.

KURTZ: You say -- you say that Rather should be fired. You say that CBS News President Andrew Heyward should be fired. But if they were duped, and this is not a case of something where they intentionally were trying to mislead the public, is that fair?

SULLIVAN: No, it is fair, insofar as you're not responsible if someone tries to dupe you. You are responsible when you throw away any safeguards to check those things. That's a -- seems to me that's a resignable issue.

SESNO: Tough business here. But you know, you also have the track record of Rather and Heyward and all the others. It's not unlike what happened over at "The New York Times." You know, Gerald Boyd and Howell Raines, tremendous track records. They resisted, resisted, resisted, but ultimately, because of a bunch of different things, they had to go.

KURTZ: Yeah, the pundits have been having a field day with this story, as you might imagine, particularly conservative pundits. Let's take a look of some of what's been on the airwaves.


PAT BUCHANAN, MSNBC: Rather and CBS are covering up a crime.

JAMES TARANTO: Who put the innuendo and rumor into the discourse last week? It was CBS News with these phony memos.

OLIVER NORTH, FOX NEWS: I think CBS has finally poisoned their own well.


KURTZ: Now, conservatives like yourself, Andrew Sullivan, can hardly contain your glee at catching CBS looking dumb. I mean, this is -- you are...

SULLIVAN: Look, just because...

KURTZ: You're popping the champagne cork.

SULLIVAN: Well, I mean, look, Dan Rather is in a class of his own. He's been a bete noir for conservatives for decades. And that's another reason he should be more careful about this. And it fits so perfectly, the storyline, that the mainstream media are completely behind it and they don't care about facts...


OVERHOLSER: It's unfortunate. It's a real journalistic problem and not a partisan issue, and their failure to acknowledge it feeds this notion that it's a partisan issue.

SESNO: It does feed it, but I completely disagree with you, Andrew. I do not think that you can conclude from this that it was sloppy journalism and partisan journalism. There's no indication anywhere along the line that this was deliberately partisan. You know, the same network was looking at John Kerry's track record and what he did in Vietnam. SULLIVAN: Dan Rather's record on the Bushes, going way back to when the first President Bush stormed out of an interview with him, is one of animosity. It's also a personal beef between the two of them...

KURTZ: Animosity or aggressiveness?

SULLIVAN: Animosity.

OVERHOLSER: Dan Rather is a hothead. We also have Dan Rather on record as what was it he said, Howie? "I'll be the first to go to war, send me." I mean, he's a hothead. It's not just partisanship. This is who he is.

SULLIVAN: There is a certain amount of Texan swaggering going on here...

OVERHOLSER: You bet you.

SULLIVAN: ... between Dan Rather and George W. Bush.

OVERHOLSER: You bet you.

SULLIVAN: And all I can say is that if you're going to be that swaggery, you better get (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

SESNO: The most damaging thing here, Howie, I think, is the way -- and I think Geneva touched on this -- the way this plays into the popular subtext out here, that see, the media are liberal, see what they do, not only are they liberal, they're irresponsible, and the perception, anyway, this nails it. And that's the worst part of it.

SULLIVAN: But Dan Rather is a liberal Democrat, Frank. I mean, he's fund-raisers for liberal Democrats.

KURTZ: No, hold on, hold on.

SULLIVAN: He's on the record.

KURTZ: He showed up at one -- because I reported the story -- he showed up at one Texas Democratic fund-raiser. His daughter had been involved in it, and he later apologized for that.

SESNO: And I think he's caused plenty of headaches for plenty of liberals, too.

SULLIVAN: You think he's a Republican?

SESNO: That's not the issue. The issue is how he does his job.


OVERHOLSER: Sloppy journalism makes it looks like he is, yeah.


SULLIVAN: It's inexplicable to do this unless you have some kind of bias. It seems to be inexplicable...

OVERHOLSER: Was it inexplicable that Jayson Blair did what he did? Or that...

SULLIVAN: We're not talking about someone who was an intern on...

KURTZ: He was a pathological liar.

SULLIVAN: ... on drugs. We're talking about...

KURTZ: But let me get Geneva back in here. Do you believe that all of this flap over CBS and Rather and the documents and the font sizes and the proportion and spacing has unfairly detracted from the questions about President Bush and his National Guard service, or are those questions not so important because they're 30 years old?

OVERHOLSER: I really believe they've all unfortunately detracted from the meat of a presidential election, when we have terribly important issues in front of us and we are still fighting this 30- year-old war that our generation cannot get over. And if we really want to focus on that, one man went to war, one man did not, and the depth of one person's wounds or the degree of one person's having pursued the National Guard requirements is really not what we ought to be focusing on.

KURTZ: One second, Frank. I want to turn to where CBS got these documents, because the likely source, who was at least involved perhaps in handing the network these documents is a Texan -- another Texan, Andrew -- named Bill Burkett, who has sued the Guard over medical benefits and once went on CNN, this is last February, and talked about having discovered George W. Bush's Guard service records in the garbage. Let's take a look at Bill Burkett.


BILL BURKETT: I did something that I probably should not have done. I was right at the trash can. I filtered through the top five or six pages in that, and they were all copies and originals of old performance documents and pay records for Bush, comma, George W., 1 lt.


KURTZ: Should that make us more skeptical of the story?

SULLIVAN: Yes. And the critical issue is that I think you must believe that Dan Rather knew that this guy was the source of the documents. So if you know that your source is this Bush hater, shouldn't you be extra careful about what he's pushing you? That's the other smoking gun here. And why are they not -- why are they stonewalling? They're stonewalling because they don't want to reveal the source, because if they do, their negligence becomes even more glaring.

SESNO: Here's what you ask. Where did the documents come from? Who gave them to you? What's their agenda? What's their background? What's their ax to grind? And then you've got to convey that to the audience if you're still going to go with it.

OVERHOLSER: If you do, you have to be transparent about it, but important question here, is this is still another anonymous source that they're covering up, and we don't know where the stuff came from.

KURTZ: We had 10 years ago NBC "Dateline" blowing up a truck and apologizing. We had five or six years ago, CNN apologizing for the Tailwind report about nerve gas used by U.S. troops in Vietnam. Could this end up ranking up there in the pantheon of media blunders?

OVERHOLSER: Oh, yeah, I think so. Definitely. Especially because of their initial response, stonewall. Wrong.

SESNO: No question about it. Absolutely, it's going to be there. And the timing, the timing, I know. I know.

KURTZ: You've been through one of these.

SESNO: I've been through one of these, and when you're on the receiving end of the feeding frenzy, as a reporter, suddenly you come out of the whole process with a very different perspective. You ask those questions going in, not coming out. And then if you mess up, fess up.

SULLIVAN: Rather started out by brilliantly targeting Richard Nixon. Now he's behaving like him. The golden rule is get it out there, be honest, confess, disclose, not stonewall. And that's what's killing him.

KURTZ: The inevitable Watergate analogy. We have to take -- we have to take a break. When we come back, how did Web bloggers break the document story before the mainstream media?


KURTZ: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES., you're one of these people who sounds off on the Web every two or three hours with all manner of opinion. You initially accepted the CBS story as true, and then you began linking to some of your fellow bloggers who were raising questions about the documents. How important were they in this process?

SULLIVAN: Critical. First step is that CBS put the documents up on the Web, which is a good thing, and they deserve credit for that.

KURTZ: And everybody started downloading.

SULLIVAN: And everybody started looking at them. I thought they were legit, and I said, goodness, these are devastating to Bush unless they're forgeries. Does anybody know? It wasn't my prompting of it, but on the FreeRepublic posting site, this guy called Buckhead was like, they look like forgeries to me. Then other Web sites started saying, there were discrepancies between the fonts and the way these were used, and stuff that would make your eyes glaze over. But within hours, hundreds of fact checkers basically, more fact checkers than CBS could ever hire, had brought so much doubts to bear upon these things, that you had to look back at the story. In other words, the new media created this story.

KURTZ: This is far different from the days when networks or newspapers would put out stories, and then basically say, trust us.

SESNO: We've democratized the world -- the news business, and let every news organization beware, because anybody who has access to any information can be their own investigative reporter, and they're going to hold you the news organization to account in at least the same sort of way, with the same pressure as the news organization is trying to hold others to account.

KURTZ: But are they always going to do it in a fair way?

SESNO: They're not always going to do it in a fair way, they're not always going to be right, it's not always going to be orderly, but the pressure is always going to be there.

OVERHOLSER: And it will sort itself out. And it's great. The democratization is exactly what we needed.

KURTZ: This is a healthy development to you.

OVERHOLSER: It is. And a lot of it is messy. I don't mean we should always say, oh, the blog, I mean, with all due respect. Heaven knows, they're doing plenty of things.

SULLIVAN: The point is not an individual blog, because an individual blog can get stuff wrong. The point is the system, which is self-correcting. The collective mind is a corrective one. And this is another example of CBS' arrogance. Jonathan Klein, the former producer of "60 Minutes," says bloggers don't have any checks and balances, they're just a bunch of guys in pajamas. Well, it doesn't matter what you're wearing if you get it right.

SESNO: News organizations aren't used to having the whole wide world peering over their shoulders. They're not used to having their methods and their sources questioned, challenged and pushed. And they're going to have to get used to that. They're going to be -- going to have to be much more transparency and accountability to the public.

KURTZ: Yeah, it used to be there were a couple of watch dog groups, and now anybody with a modem can look at the documents and say, here is what I think. But I wonder...

OVERHOLSER: I was a newspaper editor in the days before internal memos did not go out all over the Web.

KURTZ: But are some bloggers so opinionated or so willing to traffic in nasty rumors, that it becomes hard for people to tell like who's brilliant and who is crazy?

OVERHOLSER: Well, that's one reason we rely on things like the story in this morning's "Washington Post," to try to give us the full picture. But the bloggers wouldn't -- sort of had to force this to happen.

SULLIVAN: Right, but the great thing about journalists like Howie, to suck up to you for a minute, that you actually read these blogs, unlike a lot of other journalists, and use them for the information that they can create. Yes, some of them are crazy. Some of them are really smart, and smarter than any journalist working in the mainstream media. But the system flushes it all out.

SESNO: It's an extension of the vetting process, really.

OVERHOLSER: But I still wish we'd look at the bloggers who are thinking of things like whether we ought to be in Iraq, and...


SULLIVAN: I've been trying to do that all week, Geneva. I agree.

KURTZ: Just briefly, Andrew Sullivan, does this make CNN or ABC or "The New York Times" vulnerable to an organized cyber campaign to discredit a story where it might not be warranted?

SULLIVAN: Yes, but if the facts bear it out, it will hold up, and the bloggers are going to have their own moments of disgrace. I know that's going to -- I've made mistakes and -- but the point is, the standards for the blogosphere are higher than CBS. You have to correct immediately, or you're toast.

KURTZ: Got to blow the whistle on that toast point. Andrew Sullivan, Frank Sesno, Geneva Overholser, thank you very much for joining us.

When we come back, Kitty Kelley's latest tell-all about the Bush family. The controversial author takes on media on the airwaves. Stay with us.


KURTZ: What do you do as a journalist when Kitty Kelley comes on your show? She's got a book to flog, "The Family," about the Bush clan. And you the interviewer, have no way of knowing whether the sex and drug charges, often attributed to unnamed sources, are true. So you press her, perhaps, on why she's so hostile toward Bush and company, as Matt Lauer did during three days of interviews on "Today."


MATT LAUER, "TODAY SHOW": Of those topics, how many are positive, do you think?


LAUER: Zero.


LAUER: Zero. Not one. Twenty-two pages, 39 topics, not one positive topic that the publishing company feels the people should know about.

KELLEY: Well, I want people to know the positives and the negatives.


KURTZ: Or you demand to know how Kelley could suggest without proof that George W. Bush might have been abusive toward his wife?


AARON BROWN, CNN: There is no record there was spousal abuse. That is pure gossip. Isn't it?

KELLEY: Well, I interviewed an awful lot of people. And they talked about how abusive George W. was.

BROWN: But you have no source...

KELLEY: I do have source, I promise you.

BROWN: Do you have -- all right.


KURTZ: But of course, you've just told lots of viewers about this unsubstantiated allegation. So maybe you focus on another unconfirmed charge, that Laura Bush was involved with drugs in her youth.


CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST, "HARDBALL": How do you know she sold dope?

KELLEY: Because I interviewed people who were there, people who smoked dope with her, people who were in...

MATTHEWS: Well, where is that in your book? Where is that in your book?

KELLEY: Their names?


KELLEY: Their names are not there. Their names are...

MATTHEWS: Where are the first -- who are the first person witnesses to this illegal drug use?


KURTZ: And you might even find the author casting aspersions on you.


KELLEY: Now, you play golf with the former president, Bush.

LAUER: I've never played golf with him.

KELLEY: You know that he's a gregarious man.


KURTZ: Lauer later repeated his denials, no golf with Bush 41. So why put Kitty Kelley on just to berate her about the anonymous sources she insists she has but can't name? It wouldn't have anything to do with ratings, would it?

Up next, your viewer e-mail about the mess at CBS.


KURTZ: Now for our viewer e-mail on the National Guard story. There are a couple of defenders of Dan Rather out there. Terry in Omaha writes -- "Credit must be given to Dan Rather and CBS for their not being afraid to dig into the Bush National Guard issue. Rather shows great courage in his persistence."

But more of our e-mail sounded like this one, from Karen in Yardley, Pennsylvania who writes -- "It is CBS' responsibility to determine the truthfulness of the documents before they air the story. If they can't do that, they shouldn't be on the air. Let's hold the media responsible for the accuracy of their reports."

That's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm Howard Kurtz. "LATE EDITION" with Wolf Blitzer begins right now.


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