Jun 20, 2006

Stop it! Just stop it! [LINK]

Okay, that's it. I really have had it.

I was just watching Jim Lehrer interview Ben Bradlee on PBS tonight, and they spoke about various issues relating to journalism. The two of them rehashed some journalistic sins, starting with the Janet Cooke affair. Bradlee had some interesting things to say about the Washington Post's negligence in allowing Cooke's series to be published years ago: basically that she was a black rising star, and all the editors were white and didn't know enough about black neighborhoods to suspect the story was bogus.

Then there was a little voice-over interlude in which Lehrer detailed similar acts of fabrication, those of Jason Blair of the New York Times and Jack Kelly of USA Today, and photographs of both men appeared on screen. Then he mentioned Dan Rather, whose report on President Bush's National Guard service, he said, was found to have been based on "documents that had not been authenticated." A photograph of Rather briefly appeared on screen, along with an animated graphic of two identical documents being overlaid one over the other.

Now, what the heck was that supposed to mean? They didn't say, but I guess the point is they didn't have to, that it's familiar to practically everyone by now. After doubts emerged among bloggers about the authenticity of the documents CBS News relied on in its story shortly after it aired in Sept. 2004, Charles Johnson of Little Green Footballs typed one of them into Microsoft Word himself using its default settings, overlaid that document with CBS's document, and found them to be a perfect match. That was the compelling visual proof that the documents CBS relied on were a clumsy forgery, produced with technology that was not available when President Bush was a young man. This is what the graphic represented.

So, Mister Lehrer, Mister Journalistic Ethics, Mister Tell It Like It Is, Mister Let's Talk About It Some More, if you flash us a graphic revealing you are indeed aware that the documents Dan Rather used in his report were forgeries manufactured with Microsoft Word, why does your script simply say that they "had not been authenticated." This is cognitive dissonance. How many times have I heard that rote phrase by now? It's achieved the status of meaningless cliché, from which nobody appears willing to deviate. They were forgeries. Come out and say it already. Do not apply some genteel euphemism that makes it seem CBS's negligence was any less awful than it was. It's not as if the documents might have been authenticated on some abstract plane had CBS been a little more careful. They were proven forgeries, bogus in so many ways it's hard to keep count, and CBS was utterly reckless and irresponsible for allowing them on the air. Why would it be silly to say the Hitler Diaries or the Protocols of the Elders of Zion "could not be authenticated," but not this? Repeat after me: "The documents CBS News relied on in its report on Bush's National Guard service were forgeries."

"Had not been authenticated." It's a transparently bogus phrase, and everybody knows it. Why use it? It has to be more than mindless habit. We know we as a profession screwed up big time, he seems to be saying, and we know you know it. Perhaps if we hold a few panel discussions and lay on some orotundities, we'll appear to have digested the matter more thoroughly than those bloggers who use the base language of the streets. If we all say the same thing about it over and over again, people will start saying it too, and they'll begin to like it. Martha, I hear that Dan Rather may be leaving CBS News. That's too bad, George. Wasn't he that one who did that story that couldn't be authenticated?

What a load. What a truckload. Enough already.

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