11/18/2005

Lashing Back Over the Memo Scandal

Lashing Back Over the Memo Scandal

By Paul Farhi,
a Washington Post staff writer
Wednesday, November 9, 2005; C12

TRUTH AND DUTY

The Press, the President, and the Privilege of Power

By Mary Mapes

St. Martin's. 371 pp. $24.95

Mary Mapes is madder than a rained-out rooster, as her former boss, Dan Rather, might say. Mapes, the CBS producer who lost her job over last year's "60 Minutes II" story about President Bush's National Guard service, resurfaces with a reconstruction of that incident that savages just about everyone associated with it: conservative bloggers, the mainstream media, CBS and its chief executive, Leslie Moonves, the Texas Air National Guard, even a few members of the Dallas Cowboys of the early 1970s.

And that's just in the first 40 pages of Mapes's wonkishly named but compellingly told tale of a byzantine chapter in journalism and politics.

For all her windmilling anger, Mapes musters a controlled, readable narrative about the story that became her professional undoing. In "Truth and Duty," she almost succeeds in making the case that she got the story substantially right, while the rest of the world insists she blew it...

Her case is by no means airtight. But it does suggest that if the Killian memos were fakes, they were more artful, rigorous and extraordinarily well-crafted fakes than Mapes's accusers are willing to admit.

Indeed, of the many nasty and unfair things said about Mapes by the blog mob, at least one of them seems patently false. She may have been duped, but she was demonstrably not reckless in her pursuit of this story. The Guard memos were the product of years of on-and-off effort by a much-decorated journalist who, only months before Memogate, had broken the story of the Abu Ghraib prison abuses. On the other hand, Mapes's narrative is marred by her failure to appreciate her own blind spots, which are enormous. Crucially, Mapes didn't ask too many tough questions about the source of the memos: an embittered, Bush-hating Texas cattle rancher and former Guardsman named Bill Burkett.

In the aftermath of the CBS report, Burkett admitted that he had lied to the CBS team about where he had gotten the goods. The story he then told -- about a mysterious go-between named Lucy Ramirez, who handed off the documents to another mysterious stranger, who then passed them to Burkett at a livestock show in Houston -- would have raised more red flags than May Day in Tiananmen Square had CBS known of it. Remarkably, Mapes doesn't seem skeptical of this bizarre tale even now. "By God, in Texas," she writes, "anything could happen."..

It's entirely possible that Mapes was wrong -- very wrong -- about Bush's military record. But that's still only theoretical. Mapes doesn't establish the authenticity of the disputed memos here (she can't -- not without Killian, and not without the original documents to test and examine). But then, no one has definitively shown them to be forgeries, either. The "independent" panel that CBS hired to look into the story (composed primarily of lawyers, not journalists, and co-chaired by a former Republican attorney general) cast plenty of doubt on the story and CBS's handling of it. But it never said the report was baseless, never accused Mapes or Rather of political bias or called the memos fraudulent.

Although that's hardly a ringing vindication of Mapes, it's better than a kick in the head, as they say in Texas. It also suggests, as Mapes does, that there's more to the Bush Guard story than we've learned so far.
Lashing Back Over the Memo Scandal

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