BOB GARFIELD: From WNYC in New York, this is NPR's On The Media -I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. The investigation reported by Dan Rather on 60 Minutes II earlier this month was indicting, to say the least. Based on taped interviews, Pentagon records and newly surfaced documents, CBS concluded that President Bush had not only benefitted from political connections to get into the Texas National Guard in the midst of the Vietnam War, but failed to meet his Guard commitments and ignored direct orders to do so. The smoking gun: copies of memos from Bush's commanding officer complaining of political pressure to go easy on the son of a Republican big shot.
BOB GARFIELD: Three decades later, this may or may not deserve to be a big campaign issue. With a bloody war currently raging and vast social and economic problems to deal with, maybe the events of 1972 don't much matter. But truth always matters, and the CBS investigation, following similar revelations by the Boston Globe, the Associated Press and U.S. News & World Report, paint an unflattering portrait: a candidate for presidential re-election who -- when his country first called -- abused political privilege and his comrades' trust, and has been hushing up the facts ever since. And it took only one day for all hell to break loose -- not putting the president on the defensive, but rather Rather. The poster child for liberal media bias had to deal with the very plausible accusation that the smoking-gun memos were fakes. [START TAPE]
DAN RATHER: Are those documents authentic, as experts consulted by CBS news continue to maintain? Or were they forgeries or re-creations...? We will keep an open mind, and we will continue to report credible evidence and responsible points of view as we try to answer the questions raised about the authenticity of the documents. [END TAPE]
BOB GARFIELD: That was Rather on Wednesday, only two days after categorically vouching for the memos on the CBS Evening News. As of Friday, the authenticity question had yet to be definitively answered. What was most definitively answered was how a journalistic bombshell can get defused.
BRANT HOUSTON: At this point, I believe that that is overshadowing the rest of the story....
BOB GARFIELD: Brant Houston, professor of journalism at the University of Missouri, is executive director of Investigative Reporters and Editors Inc.
BRANT HOUSTON: It is a nightmare, I think, for somebody that's worked on an investigative story with integrity and with persistence, to have something like this happen, it really is.
BOB GARFIELD: He's speaking of CBS News, if it was in fact duped by forgeries. But there is also the question of the other news organizations whose investigations have drawn identical conclusions based on hundreds of interviews and official Pentagon records. The September 8th Boston Globe piece, for instance, demonstrated that young Lt. George Bush twice signed pledges to fulfill his service requirements on the penalty of being called to active duty, yet never met his commitments. But here is what the head of the Globe investigative team, Walter Robinson, heard in the very first question of his interview on the NPR talk program The Connection: [START TAPE]
DICK GORDON: Last week, you and Associated Press, CBS -- you were all over these new documents, and then a weekend of questions about their authenticity - and I'm not sure where we are right now. Where are we?
WALTER ROBINSON: Well, I just, I want to make an important distinction. The documents that we and the Associated Press reported on are the official military records of President Bush.
DICK GORDON: Okay?
WALTER ROBINSON: The documents which CBS was trying to... [END TAPE]
BOB GARFIELD: For Robinson, the implications of this confusion were all too clear.
WALTER ROBINSON: Well, I was thinking if the host of The Connection has managed to morph all of the reports about Bush's military service into one that is dominated by the issue -- "Are all these documents authentic?" -- how is it possible for the average voter to make any sense out of this?
BOB GARFIELD: What's the answer to that question?
WALTER ROBINSON: Well, the answer is: for most voters, probably not much chance at all right now.
BOB GARFIELD: Especially when the Fox News channel labels the controversy "Rathergate" and rhetoric from Republican leaders implies that the suspect memos were forged by the John Kerry campaign to discredit the president. Of course, there have also been raised eyebrows among Bush haters, who noticed how rapidly the White House distributed the disputed memos to reporters, and how even more rapidly bloggers materialized to impeach their authenticity. Watergate figure John Dean, who's confessional testimony finally sank his boss, Richard Nixon, is no stranger to political dirty tricks.
JOHN DEAN: I'm one who happens to believe that there are Karl Rove sleeper cells that need very little instruction to, to thrust themself into action.
BOB GARFIELD: In any event, he says, for the clouds hovering over the president's service record to be blown away by a tempest about liberal bias in the media was a political windfall for the Bush-Cheney campaign.
JOHN DEAN: This goes back to Bush I, and it goes back to, even to Watergate and Dan Rather and beating up on Republicans. So it-- obviously [LAUGHS] - this is the Perfect Storm for this situation.
BOB GARFIELD: For his part, the Globe's Robinson is fairly philosophical about what he calls the "story du jour."
WALTER ROBINSON: Well, I, I think at the moment, the bigger story is clearly -- was CBS the victim of what would be, in recent American political history, a fairly extraordinary hoax. I mean we play a substantial role in the political process -- we in the media -- and if such a large news organization on an issue of such importance -- the president's integrity --gets duped, then that's a story.
BOB GARFIELD: But evidence of military dereliction by a future war president is also news. And Robinson worries that--
WALTER ROBINSON: Facts for Bush's own records about his lack of fidelity to his Guard service seemed to have escaped public notice because of skepticism about one news organization's reporting on them.
BOB GARFIELD: In those worries, he is not alone. As more and more attention is paid to the disputed memos at the expense of the underlying story, the liberal media watchdog Fairness and Accuracy in Media has looked at Rathergate and seen not just another three-ring media circus, but a badly managed one. It's the equivalent, Fair observes, of covering the sideshow and ignoring the center ring. [MUSIC]