Lashing Back Over the Memo Scandal

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By Paul Farhi,
a Washington Post staff writer
Wednesday, November 9, 2005

TRUTH AND DUTY

The Press, the President, and the Privilege of Power

By Mary Mapes

St. Martin's. 371 pp. $24.95

Mary Mapes is madder than a rained-out rooster, as her former boss, Dan Rather, might say. Mapes, the CBS producer who lost her job over last year's "60 Minutes II" story about President Bush's National Guard service, resurfaces with a reconstruction of that incident that savages just about everyone associated with it: conservative bloggers, the mainstream media, CBS and its chief executive, Leslie Moonves, the Texas Air National Guard, even a few members of the Dallas Cowboys of the early 1970s.

And that's just in the first 40 pages of Mapes's wonkishly named but compellingly told tale of a byzantine chapter in journalism and politics.

For all her windmilling anger, Mapes musters a controlled, readable narrative about the story that became her professional undoing. In "Truth and Duty," she almost succeeds in making the case that she got the story substantially right, while the rest of the world insists she blew it.

Washington and the news media have moved on to new and better scandals, but the CBS story on Sept. 8, 2004, caused a massive, if short-lived, firestorm. Smack in the middle of a presidential campaign, Rather reported that previously undisclosed documents -- supposedly written by the future president's commander in the Texas Air National Guard, the late Lt. Col. Jerry B. Killian -- sketched a record of indifferent conduct by young Bush, culminating with Killian's recommendation that Bush be suspended from flying. The report also contained an interview with Ben Barnes, a Democrat and former Texas lieutenant governor, who told of pulling strings to get Bush a slot in the Guard, enabling him to avoid combat in Vietnam.

In all, not exactly a flattering picture for a commander in chief conducting a war in Iraq and running against Sen. John F. Kerry, a decorated combat veteran.

As Mapes recounts it, the reporting of the piece, not its substance, almost instantly became the story. The Killian memos were immediately attacked as fakes by bloggers, who saw in them a politically motivated hatchet job by a suspiciously liberal anchor and TV network. They reproduced copies of the memos, analyzed such arcana as "superscripts" and "proportional spacing," and "demonstrated" how such documents could be reproduced using nothing more sophisticated than Microsoft Word.

The cacophony quickly built into an obliterating roar as mainstream news organizations stampeded after the story, turning up various inconsistencies. After far too much discussion about font sizes, Rather capitulated and apologized, saying the Killian memos could not be authenticated. Mapes and three other producers and news executives involved in the story eventually lost their jobs after a lengthy investigation by a CBS-appointed panel.

And that would be that, if Mapes, restrained from talking publicly while employed by CBS, had not reawakened these sleeping dogs in "Truth and Duty."


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© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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