Tuesday, September 14, 2004

Waiting to Explode

Mr. MIKE WALLACE ("60 Minutes"): I'm astonished by what they did.
[Correspondent Bob] FAW: And, says Wallace, by the fallout it might create.
Mr. WALLACE: If we are not believed as reporters, what have we got? ...
FAW: We all suffer?
Mr. WALLACE: And we, indeed, all suffer.

(Mike Wallace, appearing on CBS Evening News on February 10, 1993, one day after NBC settled a defamation lawsuit by publicly apologizing to General Motors for staging crash tests.)

NBC's humiliation was months in the making. NBC first tried to stonewall:
GM's investigation of NBC began on Nov. 19, two days after "Dateline NBC" broadcast its report, titled "Waiting to Explode." The focal point of the NBC report was a simulated crash in which a passenger car broadsided a GM truck, causing an eruption of flames. The crash was one of two conducted for NBC in rural Indiana by an independent contractor, the Institute for Safety Analysis.

In a letter to the executive producer of "Dateline NBC" after the news report was aired on Nov. 17, GM asked NBC to provide it with the data on the two crashes. GM wanted everything - the names of the contractors who ran the tests, any additional footage from the scene and the two trucks themselves.

In response, the producer of "Dateline," Robert B. Read, defended the NBC News report and said its "use of demonstrations was accurate and responsible."
When pressed to provide the trucks, gas tanks and other materials used in the crash test, Read sent a final and emphatic letter to GM stating that the trucks "have subsequently been junked and, therefore, are no longer available."

("A detective story; How GM solved case of naughty network's contrived crash test," Tom Mashberg, The Boston Globe, February 11, 1993.)

The Boston Globe disclosed that it was a call from an unidentified reporter at the crash scene that prompted General Motors to investigate. The probe led to Bud's Salvage in Avon, Indiana, near the crash site, a junkyard where the trucks and evidence of incendiary devices underneath the frame of each vehicle were found.

Are we about to see a similar scenario unfold at CBS? Would Mike Wallace muster such candor about reporters' loss of credibility, now that it is "60 Minutes" and CBS standing in the dock? Not likely. What is clear is that other members of the established media are now unwilling to defend the authenticity of CBS's memos. The Washington Post is blunt:
A detailed comparison by The Washington Post of memos obtained by CBS News with authenticated documents on Bush's National Guard service reveals dozens of inconsistencies, ranging from conflicting military terminology to different word-processing techniques.

The analysis shows that half a dozen Killian memos released earlier by the military were written with a standard typewriter using different formatting techniques from those characteristic of computer-generated documents. CBS's Killian memos bear numerous signs that are more consistent with modern-day word-processing programs, particularly Microsoft Word.
As it becomes accepted as obvious that the memos are forgeries, questions will mount about their source. Yet, CBS has made no secret that they intend to fall back on claims of confidentiality. Today's New York Times reports:
Alex S. Jones, director of the Shorenstein Center at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, said the burden was on CBS to prove its report was accurate beyond standard lines like "We stand by our story."

"I think they should be able to provide credible information about how these memos came into their possession," Mr. Jones said. "And if they cannot provide the name of the source, then they need to make as much transparency as possible."

But CBS News officials have made it clear that they will go only so far. They have repeatedly said they do not believe their source for the documents would go public.

The defense of confidentiality will be weakened should CBS admit to doubts about the authenticity of the documents. Their insistence that they can vouch for the chain of custody further narrows their options:
One important question raised inside and outside CBS is whether it knows where the documents, which it admits are not originals but copies, came from in the first place and how many hands they passed through. Sandy Genelius, a network spokeswoman, said, "We are confident about the chain of custody; we're confident in how we secured the documents." She would not elaborate.
("CBS Offers New Experts to Support Guard Memos," Jim Rutenberg and Kate Zernike, New York Times, September 14, 2004.)

When the memos are left in the junk heap of CBS denials, can another unidentified reporter help us learn who forged the documents? And just whom would that reporter call?

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|| headland, 12:47 AM


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