In 1992 the Nobel Prize was awarded to Rigoberta Menchu, a Guatemalan author, for her autobiography, “I, Rigoberta Menchu.” In the book, Menchu recounted growing up in a marginalized peasant family in Guatemala and that family’s harrowing struggle against oppression.
There was one problem with Menchu’s book–it wasn’t true. Menchu grew up in comfortable circumstances, and her book had actually been ghosted by the wife of a famous Marxist. (David Horowitz’s piece several years ago in Salon is an excellent summary.)
That Menchu’s book was false was verified and reported upon extensively, including a story in the New York Times. A disgrace, yes, but was the Nobel committee knocking at Ms. Menchu’s door, demanding its prize back? Not a bit. Menchu’s supporters argued that the book was true in a larger, mythic sense. “I, Rigoberta” told the story of the Guatemala peasant and ruling class oppression, even if Rigoberta herself didn’t know a fig about peasant life in Guatemala.
Dan Rather may be the Rigoberta Menchu of network news. Confronted with the possibility that the documents CBS relied upon to produce a story on President Bush’s Texas Air National Guard service may be forgeries, Rather sternly warned viewers not to pay attention to how the network got the story but to the allegations in the story.
Rather repeated his defense of the story on CNN (I’m sure the original is still up on the CBS site–somewhere–but I’m relying on the CNN interview as I can’t find the remarks on CBS this morning):
Rather: “I want to make clear to you if I have not made clear to you, that this story is true, and that more important questions than how we got the story, which is where those who don’t like the story like to put the emphasis, the more important question is what are the answers to the questions raised in the story, which I just gave you earlier.”
This is a new low threshold for evaluating the content of a news story–we know it’s true jes cuz.
What if Janet Cook, the reporter who faked a Pulitzer Prize at the Washington Post, had said–well, the story is true, there are 7-year-old heroin addicts? I just didn’t happen to find one. (Tip of the hat to writer Judy Bachrach for the analogy.)
This was where CBS was heading the other day in its defense of its much-hyped story, which now appears quite possible to be an urban legend–it is an article of faith in some quarters that President shirked his duty. They know this–jes cuz.
That’s not new. The new development is that apparently CBS, the Tiffany of networks, now no longer feels the need to get the story before putting it on the air–we know jes cuz. It was interesting that Rather, who’s been on TV since the Hittites, had a quivery voice we’ve never heard before when he defended the story on the Friday evening news.
Nobody, of course, is focusing on how CBS got the story–we don’t care if the documents came over the transom, were smuggled into CBS by Teresa in a batch of her famous pumpkin spice cookies by Teresa, or just showed up in Dan’s Wheaties box. We want to know if the documents used to make the story are real or if CBS’s new standard of accuracy is jes cuz we kno’ it’s so. It didn’t help Ms. Cook much that there could have been a Jimmy.
Still, it appears that the Rigoberta Menchu defense may not work for CBS.
The inimitable Lucianne sums up the network’s response to the controversy this way: “I did not have Times Roman with that document,” a reference to the typeface used in the possibly faked documents, a typeface that, if available at all, was not widely available in the early 1970s, when the document was purportedly written.
William Safire in today’s New York Times tells the network and dapper Dan what must be done to salvage its reputation:
“It may be that CBS is the victim of a whopping journalistic hoax, besmearing a president to bring him down. What should a responsible news organization do?
“To shut up sources and impugn the motives of serious critics — from opinionated bloggers to straight journalists — demeans the Murrow tradition. Nor is any angry demand that others prove them wrong acceptable, especially when no original documents are available to prove anything….
“Hey, Dan: On this, recognize the preponderance of doubt. Call for a panel of old CBS hands and independent editors to re-examine sources and papers. Courage.”
Don’t miss John Fund on why CBS’s Jonathan Klein may live to regret knocking the blog brigade that originally challenged the authenticity of the documents as producer guys sitting in their living rooms in the pjs:
“A watershed media moment occurred Friday on Fox News Channel, when Jonathan Klein, a former executive vice president of CBS News who oversaw ’60 Minutes,’ debated Stephen Hayes, a writer for The Weekly Standard, on the documents CBS used to raise questions about George W. Bush’s Vietnam-era National Guard service.
“Mr. Klein dismissed the bloggers who are raising questions about the authenticity of the memos: ‘You couldn’t have a starker contrast between the multiple layers of check and balances [at ’60 Minutes’] and a guy sitting in his living room in his pajamas writing.’
“He will regret that snide disparagement of the bloggers, many of whom are skilled lawyers or have backgrounds in military intelligence or typeface design.”
Of course, we all know what the real problem is, why CBS perhaps embraced the documents without enough vetting–it’s that the network is “rather biased.”
There was a terrific blog this morning–or was it last night–comparing the folks at CBS to suicide bombers–they are so un-fond of Bush that they’ll sacrifice their own credibility to get him. I can’t find the suicide bombers blog–is there anybody out there who could send me a link?
Meanwhile, Instapundit is the clearing house for CBS-memo information. The Other Charlotte has already mentioned Mark Steyn’s hilarious essay on CBS and the fastest typewriter of the 1970s,but if you haven’t had a chance to read it yet, I’d like to reiterate TOC’s praise for it.