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March 13, 2005

How Not to do Investigative Reporting

Gerald Dworkin: March 13, 2005

There is an extremely interesting document available here.  It is the independent investigation of the CBS handling of four documents relating to President Bush’s service in the Texas Air National Guard. The report was commissioned by CBS and headed by Richard Thornburgh, former US Attorney General.  It is 234 pages in length, so one is unlikely to read it in its entirety, but even spending half and hour skipping around in it is fascinating and rewarding.

 This is a thorough investigation of how CBS pursued this story, how it vetted the authenticity of the documents, and how it responded when the blogosphere began to criticize the story within hours of its broadcast. The lessons that I have drawn from it are many and various. I give only my conclusions, and readers will have to determine from reading the document whether they agree or not.

 1) This is a case-book example of how not to do an investigative report. The producers and reporters of this story were, at the least, negligent at every step in the investigation. They failed to consider the biases of their witnesses. They failed to authenticate the documents. They ignored considerable evidence that the documents were not authentic. They aired misleading excerpts from on-camera interviews. They misrepresented the views of their witnesses in voice-over commentaries. They ignored testimony that contradicted their claims. They failed to even contact the supposed source of the documents.

 2) The major source of these failures was the competitive pressure to be the first to broadcast the story. A number of print sources were buzzing around this story and it was clear that people were willing to sacrifice accuracy for the “scoop.”

 3)  Given that these were highly-accomplished professionals—the lead producer was one of the first to expose the Abu Ghraib scandal—there had to be a large element of self-deception to allow for the mistakes in (1). They had to convince themselves, against considerable  evidence, about such things as the qualifications of the document examines they used, what the examiners actually said, how reliable the person who handed over the documents was, whether they could explain away the various typographical criticisms of the document that the bloggers came up with immediately, etc. All this of course was made easier by the immense time pressures to publish the story first.

 4) The CBS response to the story in the two weeks after the criticisms emerged was as immoral as the story itself. Statements were issued in justification of the authenticity of the documents that were as misleading as the original story. Such misleading comments on the story continue to this day. Dan Rather on a recent David Letterman program said that the Thornburgh report did not state that the documents were inauthentic. It is true that the report says that it “was not able to reach a definitive conclusion as to the authenticity of the [Killian} documents.” But no sane person can read the many pages devoted to the “substantial questions regarding the authenticity of the [Killian} documents” without coming to the conclusion that it is overwhelmingly likely that they are not authentic.

 5) I do not believe any fair-minded reader could deny that President Bush is owed an apology by CBS news for the disgraceful airing of this story. It is particularly disgraceful that the story was aired in the closing months of the presidential campaign.

 6) The power of the internet to tap the specialized knowledge of hundreds of ordinary people and bring it to the attention of a wide number of readers is astounding. Some people knew about typewriters, some people knew about kinds of type, some people knew about what forms of abbreviation were in common use in the Texas ANG in 1972, some people knew the details about the chain of command, some people knew that one of the persons who was supposed to be exercising influence was retired. Much of this emerged with 12 hours of the story being broadcast!

 7) The Bush administration has been legitimately criticized for its use of prepackaged phony news stories (See Sunday New York Times for a lengthy story), and its hiring of commentators to spread its message under the guise of independent commentary. We should be no less critical of reporting  that is supposedly favorable to liberal causes.



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I enjoy the blog Left2Right, however, one of the bloggers, Gerald Dworkin, usually doesn't enable comments on his posts. Thus, I've created this blog whose only purpose is to provide a comment forum for each of his posts. Each of Dworkin's posts will... [Read More]

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» Dworkin on Thornburgh on CBS from AnalPhilosopher

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