Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Just Go Away

At one time, disgraced journalists generally fell into one of two categories. Some, like Janet Cooke of the Washington Post, faded quickly into obscurity, and were effectively barred from the profession. At one point in the mid-1990s, Ms. Cooke was working as a minimum-wage sales clerk in a department store in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Some reporters viewed her meager existence as fitting punishment for a woman whose fabricated story of an 8-year-old heroin addict forced the Post the return a Pulitzer in 1981.

Others, like Jayson Blair of The New York Times and Stephen Glass of The New Republic have proven more persistent, lurking on the media fringes and always willing to plug their tell-all books. I found it slightly ironic that Glass became an attorney after his fraud at TNR was exposed; one might argue that an expert liar is a natural for the legal profession, although I certainly wouldn't want Mr. Glass representing me in court.

We may be forced to invent a third category of disgraced reporters for Mary Mapes, producer of Dan Rather's ficticious report on President Bush's Air National Guard service for the now-cancelled 6o Minutes II. Ms. Mapes falls into that most loathsome segment of journalistic frauds--disgraced reporters who simply won't fade away, and continue to insist that they were right all along.

Preparing for the release of her tell-all memoir (scheduled for next week), Ms. Mapes is making the media rounds, trying to salvage a bit of her reputation, and of course, sell a few books. An lengthy account of Rathergate, told largely from Mapes's perspective, will appear in the December issue of Vanity Fair. Previews of the article can be found here and here.

I don't plan to buy Ms. Mapes's book, and I've got mixed feelings about reading the Vanity Fair article. But in reviewing the preview pieces, I find it interesting (but hardly surprising) that Ms. Mapes spends much of her time attacking her critics (and CBS News), while casting herself as a crusading journalist who fell victim to a "well-organized" attack upon her work:

"If I was an idiot, it was for believing in a free press that is able to do its job without fear or favor. ...I didn't know that the attack on our story was going to be as effective as a brilliantly run national political campaign, because that is what it was: a political campaign."

Phul-eeze. Criticism of Rathergate is first (and forever) founded in Mapes's use of fabricated memos as the foundation for the 60 Minutes II report. The numerous errors and omissions in those memos has been well-documented in the blogosphere. Mapes attempts to make the case that charges of forged documents were never proven, recycling the canard that two "document experts" verified the supposed authenticity of the memos. However, she conveniently omits the fact that one of the network's hired guns lacked genuine expertise in typesetting and other critical areas. The other CBS "expert" had serious reservations about the authenticity of the documents--concerns that were blithely ignored by Mapes and the network. The result, of course, was a fraudulent report that was quickly exposed, thanks largely to the work of bloggers.

In some of her comments, Ms. Mapes seems to liken her work to that of CBS News icon Edward R. Murrow, and his "expose" of Senator Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s. Once again, Ms. Mapes has it wrong. Using footage of McCarthy's speeches, Murrow highlighted the inconsistencies and distortions in McCarthy's claims. More than 50 years later, bloggers used the same techniques to expose the fabrications and falsehoods behind Rathergate, carefully examining the report, then detailing its fraudulent foundation, based on their knowledge of typesetting, word processing, military correspondence formats, and other relevant subjects. At one point, Mapes asks: "What in the world would Edward R. Murrow think of his network now?"

I'll take a shot at that one. One of the hallmarks of Murrow's career was fairness. In fact, the week after the McCarthy broadcast, Murrow and CBS gave the Senator the See It Now timeslot to rebut CBS's charges. McCarthy turned in a disastrous performance that brought wider scorn and derision. Compare Murrow's actions with those of Mapes and the CBS team that rushed the air national guard segment to air, with little concern for accuracy, balance or fairness. For airing the 60 Minutes II report, I'd say that Murrow would be ashamed of CBS, and those responsible for it.

But perhaps the best rebuttal of Ms. Mapes's version of events comes from her former employer, CBS News. In a statement released yesterday, the network observed:

"Mary Mapes' actions damaged CBS News as an organization and brought pain to many colleagues with whom she worked," the statement said. "As always, revisionist history must be tested against the facts." [CBS] pointed to the independent panel's 200-page report, adding: "We believe those facts speak for themselves."

Ms. Mapes could perform a valuable public service for everyone by slinking into that special purgatory reserved for disgraced journalists. But apparently, Mary has no plans to go quietly, at least until her book tanks.

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