A Second Look at Discredited Stories

On one hand, this story in today's New York Post -- quoting Dan Rather saying that his CBS bosses won't let him re-open the discredited September 2004 "60 Minutes Wednesday" story on George Bush's service record -- may be a sure sign that Dan's future at the network is rather (no pun intended) limited.

In this interview, Rather says he believes the story alleging Bush got preferential treatment in the military is true and suggests the network might have been set up -- two theories that have certainly been aired before.

When I interviewed Rather in March -- right before he signed off as "CBS Evening News" anchor -- he was far more circumspect, saying that he took "seriously" the findings of the independent panel that had reviewed the "60 Minutes" segment and found it badly flawed. "I think CBS News is looking forward," he added.

Now, it's understandable that Rather might want to look back at the story that is likely to forever taint his legacy. And he may be right that a) the essence of the piece was accurate and even b) that CBS was set up, although I've always found that to be farfetched, even in the dirty worlds of media and politics.

But the legitimate journalistic criticism aimed at CBS was not really about the conclusion reached by its piece on Bush's service record, it was the network's failure to "show the work" properly. Relying on tainted or dubious documents, even if they point to the right answer, is not acceptable reporting. CBS's failure to verify the authenticity of the documents is, on its face, an admission of guilt.

But Rather's rant raises another interesting point. Whatever happens to stories that are officially discredited or formally retracted, but whose authors continue to insist that truth was on their side?

Take for example,the 1998 CNN Operation Tailwind story alleging that the U.S. used nerve gas in Laos in 1970 on a mission to kill American defectors that was memorably retracted by CNN amidst a firestorm of public criticism.

When I interviewed her several years later, April Oliver, the CNN producer fired for her role in that piece, continued to insist she had aired "an accurate story...that is supportable."

Or the late Gary Webb, who along with supporters, stood behind the reporting in his 1996 "Dark Alliance" series in the San Jose Mercury News alleging CIA complicity in L.A.'s crack cocaine epidemic -- after it had been formally repudiated by the paper.

Of course, these are complicated cases. Some essentially accurate stories can be marred by flawed reporting, by sloppy editing, and by overreaching in the presentation. Like everything else in life, many big investigative efforts are not 100% right or 100% wrong, although journalistic standards hold that you'd better be a lot more right than wrong.

In any event, maybe Rather's comments call for a solution for such lingering controversies. Journalism could have its own "Cold Case" team of independent investigators -- paid for by grants or J-schools -- that could reopen these officially closed media investigations a few years later when passions have cooled and the interested parties have moved on to something else. Then they could render truly independent verdicts.
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