Feb 1 2005

The Real Lessons of ‘Memogate’

Judging by the amount of coverage it has received, you’d think that the CBS‘s investigation into its flawed report on George W. Bush’s National Guard service was the most important media issue facing the country.

Shortly after the report about Bush’s Guard service aired on 60 Minutes last September (9/8/04), right-wing commentators and internet bloggers claimed that the documents supporting the CBS report were fraudulent, and predictably pointed to the episode as evidence of “liberal media” bias. The fact that the segment was presented by CBS anchor Dan Rather, long a target of the right for his supposedly liberal political leanings, only added fuel to the fire. The right-wing media echo chamber couldn’t have written a better script if they tried.

In reality, the CBS review, headed by former Attorney General Dick Thornburgh (an appointee of Bush’s father) and former Associated Press president Louis Boccardi, was not able to state conclusively whether the documents were forgeries or not. The report also found no evidence that the mythical “liberal bias” was a factor in the network’s journalism.

CBS‘s investigation did document serious failures in 60 Minutes‘ efforts to check its source’s claims–an endemic problem in the news business. If “Memogate” had called attention to the general issue of credulous journalism, it would have performed a valuable service for the public. But the media discussion of the incident has generally treated it as either an aberration or as an emblem of left-wing media bias.

Lost amidst the hours of coverage of the affair was what should have been the central question: Did George W. Bush, in reality, properly fulfill his National Guard requirements?

Back in September, when the CBS story aired, several mainstream outlets published important scoops about Bush’s Guard years. According to U.S. News & World Report (9/20/04), the White House was fudging the numbers in making its case that Bush had fulfilled his Guard duty. The Boston Globe (9/8/04) examined Bush’s records and discovered that his apparent absence from Guard duty in Alabama was only part of the story–Bush was also obligated to sign up with a unit in the Boston area in 1973, but had never done so.

But because of the focus on the CBS documents and the accompanying right-wing accusations of media bias, those stories–and the important questions they raised–were quickly dropped by a cowed press corps. Instead of reporters demanding answers from the White House, they turned their attention to the finer points of typography and font spacing. It wasn’t Bush who had to face the music—it was CBS.

It’s ludicrous to claim that this controversy proves that CBS, or the media as a whole, have a liberal or anti-Bush bias. CBS staffers got caught taking shortcuts on a story critical of Bush, and it cost them their careers. By contrast, other reporters have received much less scrutiny and punishment for offenses of far greater magnitude–and with much more significant consequences to society.

The New York Times, for example, published numerous allegations about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq that turned out to be false–such as one source’s claim (9/8/02) that “all of Iraq is one large storage facility” for WMD. Those stories, many of which were splashed on the paper’s front page, did a great deal to sell the White House’s bogus case for war against Iraq.

While the Times (5/26/04) has admitted that some of its WMD reporting was “insufficiently qualified or allowed to stand unchallenged,” the reporter most responsible for those stories, Judith Miller, was never sanctioned by the Times–and indeed still continues to report on Iraq for the paper. Ironically, after MSNBC‘s Hardball finished its discussion of CBS and journalistic responsibility (1/10/05), the show turned to a discussion of Iraq featuring… Judith Miller.

The lesson of “Memogate,” then, could very well be this: Journalists can be punished for bad reporting–if they have offended the wrong people. If they have merely helped steer the country into war under false pretenses, their careers can continue unimpeded.

A version of this article was published on the Baltimore Sunop-ed page (1/18/05).