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

What was Dan Rather thinking?

I’ve really only got one thing to say about Dan Rather’s losing his lawsuit against CBS: What was he thinking?

OK, two things. When you’re caught passing off phony documents, you should smile and shut up, regardless of how badly your ex-employer might have behaved. Win or lose, there’s no way Rather could come out of this looking good.

Here’s what I wrote way back when.

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  1. Neil

    I don’t think Dan Rather is guilty of “passing off phony documents.” That implies he knew or suspected they were phony. The opposite was the case. He thought they were authentic papers that documented Bush’s AWOL status in the National Guard … and so close to the election!

    He and CBS news staff got punked. From whence did those forgeries hail?

    I thought the lawsuit was about getting discovery and answering some of those questions. Dan had already secured employment so his lawsuit did not put him in an undesirable light in the labor market. What did we learn about what actually happened from this lawsuit?

    • Dan Kennedy

      Neil: You’re right. It wasn’t deliberate on his part, and I didn’t mean to imply otherwise. The post-mortem revealed that he was a true anchor in the Ted Baxter sense — totally uninvolved, brought in to read a script at the last minute. How embarrassing.

  2. Newshound

    Rather does not think normal – he has an untreatable, no-known-cure ego disorder.

  3. This is another case where the process details trump the story. The content of the forged documents were confirmed to be true recreations of the destroyed memos, confirmed by the secretary who typed the originals. This CONFIRMED the special treatment given GW Bush in the NG (which was the core of the CBS story). But the story that people remember is that “CBS got duped by fake docs”, which is true, but about the process, not the facts of the story.

    The facts? That’s for academics, the wingnut bloggers won a round of “Gotcha!” in the 24 hour news cycle.

    And the story of the special treatment, though confirmed, went away in a flurry of handwringing about the CBS process.

    • Dan Kennedy

      John: Marian Carr Knox did not confirm the authenticity of the Killian memos. She did say that they seemed familiar and reflected what she knew to be Killian’s views. Knox detested Bush. Killian was dead. Killian’s son said Knox was wrong, though he had no direct evidence, either.

      The problem was that CBS News took an old, well-documented story and added nothing to it except phony documents.

  4. LFNeilson

    It was the magic cure for Bush’s AWOL hangover. The phony document scam made issue go absent. Rather was the collateral victim, hung by his enemies.

  5. amusedbutinformedobserver

    Rather was hardly a Ted Baxter; no anchor makes the representation that he or she has personally reported every fact recited on the news. Rather’s sin was in sticking with flawed reporting by people in the news organization for which he was the front, and whose credibility he had an obligation to safeguard.

    Rather’s biggest sin was not heading back to the barn, demanding answers, and correcting the part of the story that was in error. How ironic that Rather was caught in the Nixonian irony of a cover-up being worse than the crime!

    His reticence, or perhaps his blind support of his people let the right-wingers get their foot in the door ensnare Rather in a web of credibility issues after unsuccessfully targeting him for decades.

    Rather forgot the old cliche taught to every intro journalism class — Credibility is like virginity; you can only lose it once.

    In this case, Rather’s fall not only wrecked his credibility, it provided credibility to the right-wing nuts who think their every bizarre claim is newsworthy — look at how far backwards national media now bend in the post-Rather era and the kid gloves which which conservative generated stories are now treated.

    • Dan Kennedy

      Amused: Dan Rather lost his credibility twice. At least. Check this out. If the tubes had been around in the ’80s, his career would have been ended years earlier.

  6. Dan, I did not say she confirmed the memos’ authenticity, but the content of the “fake but accurate” memos.

    Marian Carr Knox confirmed that:
    1.) the memos in hand were NOT the original ones
    2.) the CONTENT reflected the true history

    “The information in here was correct, but it was picked up from the real ones,” she said. “I probably typed the information and somebody picked up the information some way or another.”

    The confirmation of Bush’s special treatment was lost in the shuffle over CBS’s sloppy journalism, and the NG story became radioactive because the wingnuts caught Rather & co. with their trousers down.
    I would think Killian’s son’s recollections (presumably of conversations with his Dad long after the fact) would be far less reliable than those of the woman who typed the actual material, the primary source.

    • Dan Kennedy

      John: She never went all the way and confirmed the memos. And she told different stories at different times. She did say it sounded like something she might have typed. Please remember that CBS put a huge amount of stock in presenting the memos as the real thing. They weren’t. And that was CBS’s only angle, since everything else was old news, a lot of it reported by Walter Robinson of the Boston Globe four years earlier.

  7. Treg

    It’s a fair question to ask – what was Rather thinking? His lawsuit seemed doomed from the start (for reasons Dan blogged about at the time, I believe).

    But it’s also fair and important to ask, what were the rest of us thinking, just letting the story go away in the aftermath of the CBS screwup? Could Rove have drawn it up any better?

  8. LFNeilson

    The “trained monkey” defense is interesting, considering the gazillions that anchors are paid. Got any 1099’s for J. Fred Muggs? (All right, he was a chimp, not a monkey.)

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