“Rathergate” reporter and the attack on LGF - in her own words
Few would argue that “Rathergate” was the incident that put LGF on the map and transformed this blog forever. Charles Johnson was one of strongest voices speaking out against the Killian memos. These were not the ramblings of some off the wall right wing blogger, the arguments from LGF were rooted in fact and research and became the prime exhibit in the case against Dan Rather and CBS.
It would be easy to dismiss the whole thing as a partisan attack against CBS. Little Green Footballs, was, at the time, a solidly right wing blog that supported George W. Bush. It made logical sense from the get-go that they and other conservative sites would try to poke holes in the story from the decidedly liberal CBS.
But the truth is non partisan.
The research and stories posted by Johnson at LGF were a far cry from a lame partisan attack. These were intelligent, well researched pieces disputing a key piece of evidence in a significant story that went after the sitting President of the United States. Johnson approached the situation as a forensic investigator, not a partisan hack.
Of course we all know how the story ends. The memos are discredited as forgeries and the careers of Dan Rather and Mary Mapes, the reporter on the story, go up in flames.
I was vaguely familiar with “Rathergate” when I picked up a copy of Mary Mapes’ book Truth and Duty, at a Dollar store in 2010. I was initially drawn to the book because I hold a journalism degree and I have a longstanding interest in media.
The book does indeed provide many intriguing insights into how big time news media functions and, generally speaking, I’d say it’s worth the dollar I paid for it.
What the book also contains though, are Mapes’ continued assertions that:
1) The story is true and accurate, period.
2) LGF and other sites that debunked the documents were more interested in building their own audiences and reputations than getting to the truth.
3) CBS hung her and Rather out to dry at the end
She levels a number of significant attacks against LGF and other “conservative web sites” as she calls them. Here they are below for anyone who has never read the book….
On how she felt when speculation on the authenticity of the documents began:
“Within a few minutes I was online visiting web sites I had never heard of before: Free Republic, Little Green Footballs, Powerline. They were hard-core, politically angry, hyperconservative sites loaded with vitriol about Dan Rather and CBS. Our work was being compared to that of Jayson Blai, the discredited New York Times reporter who had fabricated and plagiarzied stories.
These web sites had extensive write-ups on the documents, on typeface, font style and proportional spacing, questions that seemed to come out of nowhere. It was phenomenal. It had taken our analysts hours of careful work to make comparisons. It seemed that these analysts or commentators - or whatever they were - were coming up with long treatises in minutes. They were all linking to one another, creating an echo chamber of outraged agreement.”
An “echo chamber of outraged agreement”. Well gee, we’ve heard that one before haven’t we? The reality is it would take more than merely a vocal, outraged group of individuals to bring down Rather and CBS. At the heart of the matter, which Mapes never really addresses in the book, is that story was fundamentally flawed from the beginning. Also the fact that Free Republic is mentioned here along with LGF should give you some idea how far this site has come since then.
On the continued pressure on LGF and other sites, she writes:
“Dan told me he was confident in the story and that he was lucky to work with me. He signed off by saying something that had become a shorthand for us over the years: “F-E-A”. That was code for “Fuck ‘em all”. At this point, I deeply appreciated the sentiment. The day continued to deterioriate. I got a stream of tag team phone calls from Josh Howard and Betsy West. They each began with the same ominous words: “Mary, have you seen [fill in the blank]?” It could be Drudge Report, Powerline, something on Fox News or a new posting on Little Green Footballs. It felt as though the whole world was reading these obscure blogs and repeating their talking points without questioning them.”
Again that last line is so reminiscent of a criticism we level at the RWNJ blogs today, but despite Mapes’ attacks here, she still ignores the core of the problem: The story was flawed.
About a post from an anonymous source called “Buckhead”, she had this to say:
“Buckheads hastily reached conclusions and accusations about the Bush-Guard story were immediately echoed on a bouquet of other right wing web sites - particularly Powerline and Little Green Footballs - places that most of the mainstream media had never heard of but would learn about in the hours, days and weeks ahead. As regular media outlets discovered these conservative sites and their arm of followers, the bloggers were handed a new found power that must hae seemed both startling and miraculous to them. Their partisan claims, unsubstantiated as they were to any observer who truly clung to objectivity, were stated and restated incessantly as absolute, unshakable facts.
Their hubris went virtually unchallenged by the mainstream media, who didn’t know a damned thing about typeface, kerning or proportional spacing either, but tried hard to appear that it did.”
I don’t think you really need to be a typographical expert to look at the basic evidence in this case, namely the Killian Memos and see that something is amiss. The flaws in the documents were real and, in some cases, quite obvious. Their authenticity was indeed suspect. THAT is a fact. Mapes should have known that when dealing with a story of this nature, when the key piece of evidence is a document, that you either have it or you don’t and if there is any doubt, any doubt AT ALL that the documents are 100% authentic you don’t run with the story.
But Mapes did. To this day she claims the story is true and the Right Wing Blogs (which at the time included this very site) were reckless and careless and got it wrong.
To the very end of the book, Mapes never wavers from her belief the story and the memos are 100% true and authentic. In the Afterword, she blames money and CBS politics for her and Dan Rather’s downfall:
“Money is the master. That is the bottom line to what happened at CBS that fateful fall when we aired a story that, like all stories, was imperfect but was absolutely grounded in fact. It was well researched and well documented. But when Viacom saw the story was not well received and that a conservative firestorm was threatning the corporations financial well being, their collective wallets started itching. As a result, I believe CBS News, Dan Rather and jounalism itself got badly scratched.”
So here we are, 10 years after the fact and with a movie coming out soon that apparently is poised to paint Rather and Mapes in a sympathetic light.
Truth matters in journalism. Maybe not as much as it once did but it most certainly comes into play when you’re dealing with a major story involving the U.S. President.
This is not about Republicans. It’s not about Democrats. It’s about truth plain and simple.
Mapes was wrong, plain and simple.
If she wants to feel otherwise about it that’s her choice.
But it’s not the truth.