By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Mary Mapes’ Globe problem

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.”

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  1. Bill Baar

    Why isn’t anyone digging around to find out who word processed these documents? I’d love to know the answer to that.A conspiracy to subvert a presendial election with forged documents and no one (at least in the press) cares too much.In fact all we get is book selling and enrichment for one who was either duped by the forger or a a co conspirator with the forger… I’m guessing Mapes conspired and know cashing in on her crime.

  2. Anonymous

    Kudos to the Globe for the intellectual honesty shown by Robinson’s piece. I personally find their “progressive” drumbeat a bit tedious at times, so they deserve “props” for gritting their teeth and doing the right thing, (no pun intended).

  3. Norwegianity

    “…were almost certainly produced on a computer and printer of recent vintage, using Microsoft Word’s default settings.”I can’t believe you wrote that. Dan, for years I worked with period documents from that era, and — based on the online images made available — there is nothing about those documents that is inconsistent with the documents I handled. Mapes deserves much of the grief she’s gotten, but this is a phony wingnut talking point that was demolished repeatedly by many of us who vividly recall the IBM selectrics of that era. That, however, is still secondary to the twofold error in your statement.1) Microsoft Word was designed to “replicate” actual type. This means that Word should be able to replicate the font and type spacing accurately. But in fact the so-called test showed nothing of the sort, and was a horrible match to anyone with a trained eye. Huge differences in typesetting are virtually invisible to most people who simply do not understand how exact a science typesetting is.2) The documents may have been CYA docs, many of which were created in the aftermath of Bush’s Guard service. Still accurate, they were in fact created in the late ’70s and early ’80s to cover officers’ butts just in case there was another FBI investigation. This is probably the biggest thing not reported on by the media. Yes, they may have been forgeries, but they still may have been roughly contemporaneous, and in that case might have contained accurate information.The hard right blogged out tons of dis- and misinformation about the CBS story, and I’m sorry to see that you’re still buying into some of it.The most correct take on the CBS story is that to this day no one knows what the real story is about the memos, not the left or the right. The whole brouhaha was manufactured for the purpose of distracting everyone from Bush’s record of having gone AWOL while still serving his tour of duty with the Guard.

  4. Norwegianity

    Daily Kos just posted a very informative interview with Mary Mapes. You can read it at [break] storyonly/2005/12/11/ [break] 15636/444 (sorry for the weird paste, but Blogger didn’t seem to want to take the link coding otherwise. You’ll have to cut and paste it yourself, or search Kos for the interview.In it Mapes directly challenges her critics. Out of fairness you would think that the same fisking crew that took her down last year would want to read her book and then specifically refute her points and supporting documentation.I’m not holding my breath.Again, no proof that the documents are real, just as there is no proof they are phony.

  5. Steve

    Here’s a better link to the DailyKos story ref’ed by the norseman.I gotta say, though, the case made by the conservative bloggers about the document formats is pretty convincing, and it would take specific documentation of the kind of computer/typewriter systems in use at the ANG offices of the time for me to make Mapes’s documents believeable. I notice that the other docs ref’ed by the Kos story have the same typographical features. Again, not reproducible by any but very specific (and expensive) devices of the period.So I think the onus of proof is on Mapes, and I don’t see it.(For the record, I’m politically liberal, so I’d love to believe Mapes. But I also have a background in typography and I’m familiar with military-produced memos of the time, and it just doesn’t fit.)

  6. Dan Kennedy

    Norwegian Mark — As you can see, plenty of fair-minded liberals like Steve, who, like you, know a thing or two about typography, are pretty well convinced that the documents were MS Word-generated. And Steve is far from my only consultant on this matter. You write that there is “no proof that the documents are real, just as there is no proof they are phony.” Thank you for saving me from having to read the Mapes interview! I ask you this: What business did she have pushing these documents if she had no proof that they’re real?

  7. Anonymous

    Careful Dan, your honesty is showing! It appears we are right back at the “fake but correct” point in the discussion. Bummer.

  8. Bill Baar

    So who forged the documents not worth investigating? Or is the consensus here they weren’t forged?It looks like a forgery to subvert an election. Why else forge them?Either way, there is a story the MSM would rather people not know.

  9. Norwegianity

    I won’t argue that the segment couldn’t have been done better, just that there was a lot of punishment over something not proven. And Mapes’ account does appear to be self-serving, but compared to the “he said/she said’ism” of today’s journalism, I think it holds up well.Personally, if the real story ever comes out, I suspect the memos will turn out to be CYA documents created after the fact, but accurate in their content nonetheless.Since this controversy, Powerline, Time’s Blog of the Year, has gone on to embarrass itself on a daily basis. Just the other day E&P wrote that a Star Tribune editorial writer frequently criticized by Powerline had won a major award for editorial excellence.I look at the source of the Mapes-Rather criticism, and it’s hard for me not to see massive overkill over what was, at worst, shoddy journalism, and at best, inadequately researched reporting.The real bottom line is that Bush did not complete his service obligation. That’s a much bigger story than a failure to adequately source some sidebar documentation.IMHO. (And I’ll spare you more about how impossible it is to judge type via photocopies, or how Wizbang’s Johnson had to resize the images to make his “overlap” demonstration appear to work.)

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