Imagine, if you will, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold as written by Elmer Fudd. The perfect marriage of shadowy duplicity and spluttering witlessness. That's Rathergate. Rathergate is the great scandal, the CBS meltdown that has just eaten up a good two weeks coverage of the U.S. presidential campaign.
Dan Rather had a scoop on the flagship show 60 Minutes II. His diligent producer, Mary Mapes, who had "spent five years working on the story" of alleged derelictions of George W. Bush's service in the National Guard 30 years back, had hit pay dirt. Ms. Mapes had finally copped some "documents," a set of six memos that "proved" that Mr. Bush was not just a slacker, but a guardsman who had defied a direct order and been the beneficiary of some unsavoury interference from on high -- efforts to "sugarcoat" his record and ease his way.
The scoop -- of Watergate explosiveness, if true -- was garbage. The memos Ms. Mapes had secured were a set of fourth-rate paste-ups, a pile of photocopied fictions, done -- as was clear to any neutral set of eyes within 24 hours -- on a computer using Microsoft Word.
Bill Gates was 16 in 1971, the date of some of the alleged memos. Silicon Valley was not even a dust mote inside the most farseeing crystal ball. The likelihood, then, that in some back station of the Texas Air National Guard there were a few second-hand PCs processing the office records, set to Microsoft Word's formatting, is, at the kindest, an anachronistic fantasy. Among the obligingly deluded were Dan Rather, senior producers at 60 Minutes, and management overseers at CBS. There wasn't a typewriter on this side of Alpha Centauri that could type in the manner of the documents presented. I'm not going into the delicious, scholastic discussions of fonts, proportional spacing, kerning and all the other tasty esoterica of the typesetter's art that burdened a hundred Internet sites in the aftermath of Mr. Rather's scoop. A single day after the "scoop" it was all out there.
Even a rustic like myself has heard of Google and knows how to spell "Rather" and "document." In less than 10 minutes, I had a dozen accounts offering both competent and analytic judgment that the documents were ludicrously and obviously fake. CBS imperiously sniffed back something about bloggers being guys in pyjamas.
The Rather scoop had imperfections that went beyond fonts and the people who can tell the differences among them. Within 24 to 76 hours of the same scoop, it became public knowledge that Mr. Rather's own experts were disowning the program's claims -- saying either that they hadn't authenticated the spurious documents, or couldn't. On top of that, both the widow and the son of the lieutenant-colonel whose memos they were supposed to have been, denied with some vehemence that: (a) he typed, or (b) whether he typed or not, that he could have written them.
Against this growing typhoon of voices pointing out the memos were fake, Mr. Rather issued a defence, one term of which deserves its own page in Bartlett's, under "Asinine." Mr. Rather, after offering a second time the assurance that CBS was confident in its story, and the documents which were the story, described CBS's source as "unimpeachable."
The world has since learned that the source is Bill Burkett, a career Bush-hater who has been trolling in the partisan equivalent of amateur theatricals for years now. After he was identified, USA Today, another outlet given access to the Dead Brain Scrolls, offered us a profile of him being interviewed, one feature of which was him having a seizure and conducting the next day's interview lying on a couch with a facecloth on his head.
Mr. Burkett is a fictionist of great zeal. He lied to Mr. Rather about where he got the documents. He claims now to have burned the originals. He also claims now that he asked CBS to "authenticate" the documents before it aired them.
Mr. Burkett is the fruit of CBS's five years of diligence and discovery. Mr. Burkett is their "unimpeachable" source. (Please refer back to Elmer Fudd in the opening sentence.) The question everyone is asking is the obvious one: What were Dan Rather and his coterie of high-octane investigative staff thinking? Why did they trust this ludicrous and pathetic man, and why did they invest the mighty reputation of CBS news on whatever slush, on any given day, he was peddling?
And, where did they get the simple nerve to inject into the dynamics of the closing weeks of a presidential election a story that had neither authority, authentication, reliability or proof, but which, had it gone unrebutted, possessed the potential to alter the results of that election?
Hubris won't do. The word is too small. Carelessness is too kind. Perhaps hubris and carelessness marching hand in hand with some mix of unacknowledged partisan zeal is a start to understanding CBS's deep and shameful folly.
Rex Murphy is a commentator with CBC-TV's The National and host of CBC Radio One's Cross-Country Checkup.