When Jonathan Alter of Newsweek reviewed Mary Mapes’ book for the New York Times Book Review on Nov. 20, he opened with a devastating reminder: that the Boston Globe had exploded the credibility of her chief source, Bill Burkett, months before she relied on him in producing the “60 Minutes” story on George W. Bush’s National Guard service. That story, of course, ended her career.
Today Walter V. Robinson, editor of the Globe’s Spotlight Team and the lead reporter on several stories about Bush’s military service (or lack thereof) dating back to 2000, weighs in with his own review of Mapes’ book, which is titled “Truth and Duty: The Press, the President and the Privilege of Power.” Robinson recalls that Globe reporter Michael Rezendes, in February 2004, cast serious doubt on “Burkett’s bizarre eyewitness account of how embarrassing documents in Bush’s military records were destroyed in 1997.”
The Rezendes account is still online. In it, he reports that George O. Conn, “a key witness to some of the events described by Burkett has told the Globe that the central elements of his story are false.” As Robinson suggests, it is unimaginable that Mapes didn’t take this more seriously before she rushed her unproven, unprovable allegations onto the air.
As we all know, the avalanche that would eventually destroy Mapes’ career was begun with a few pebbles tossed by conservative bloggers, who charged that the memos on which CBS relied — purportedly typed up in the early 1970s — were almost certainly produced on a computer and printer of recent vintage, using Microsoft Word’s default settings. Mapes has some choice words for the bloggers — and Robinson has some choice words for her. Robinson writes:
Mapes’s opinion of the bloggers is venomous: “A digital lynch mob at work,” she calls them. “With political blogging,” she explains, “there is very little gate-keeping, very little vetting of information before it goes out into the ether. For many of the more amateurish sites, the operators don’t seem to want any fact-checking.” And on and on.
How, one has to wonder, can Mapes be so deaf to the irony in her attack? It was her own amateurish, unvetted reporting that gave the bloggers all the ammunition they needed.
By contrast, Robinson is respectful of anchor Dan Rather — too much so, in my view. If Rather had not been so overworked, Robinson writes, he probably would have asked for the clips — and would have seen Rezendes’ report, which would have “likely halted the broadcast.”
Perhaps. But what of Rather’s over-the-top defense of Mapes, and his statement to the outside commission that investigated the story that he regretted having issued an apology? What about the fact that the National Guard story tracks so closely with another phony-documents story in which Rather was involved in the 1970s?
Mapes may deserve most of the blame. But as Christiane Amanpour said when Peter Arnett tried to duck responsibility for CNN’s Tailwind fiasco, even though he had anchored the flawed report and had allowed his byline to be published atop the Time magazine version of the story, “I object to this new image of correspondent as nincompoop.”