1/11/2005

One Last Whack

The horse that is Rathergate is all but dead, with the official report having been released and almost everyone weighing in, with the exception of PowerLine. PowerLine was the blog that took the lead in dissecting the CBS story in the hours after it aired (a period of time often referred to in the blogosphere as "the sixty-first minute"). It was PowerLine that did the most thorough fact-checking, provided a central point for sharing of information, and was on point for the hairiest days of the affair.

So, it was surprising when PowerLine was slow to post during yesterday's blogging frenzy. But now that they have made a few posts on the topic, I thought I would take one last whack at the horse because some of my readers may not regularly read PowerLine.

The first post was "The Thornburgh Report: What It Says, and What It Doesn't Say". What is says is that Mapes was maniacal in her pursuit of this story:

In fact, the report contains repeated indications that Mary Mapes, in particular, dripped with anti-Bush venom. On July 23, Michael Smith, a freelance journalist in Texas who was working on the story along with Mapes, sent her an email that began: "I am close to something that the Bushies are worried about..." Mapes responded: "I desperately want to talk to you....Do NOT underestimate how much I want this story."

On July 30, Mapes sent an email to one of her superiors at CBS in which she wrote: "...there is some very interesting Bush stuff shaking out there right now...Re...his qualification [sic] and refusal of service in Vietnam, etc. Lots of goodies."

On August 3, she emailed again: "There is a storm brewing in Austin re the Bush stuff....It is much more intense than it was four years ago and there is a strong general feeling that this time, there is blood in the water."

Finally, on August 31, only eight days before the 60 Minutes show aired, at a time when Smith and Mapes were desperately trying to persuade Bill Burkett to give them the anti-Bush documents that they had heard he possessed, Smith sent an email to Mapes proposing that they set up a book deal for Burkett so that he could be paid in exchange for turning over the documents:

Today I am going to send the following hypothetical scenario to a reliable, trustable editor friend of mine...

What if there was a person who might have some information that could possibly change the momentum of an election but we needed to get an ASAP book deal to help get us the information? What kinds of turnaround payment schedules are possible, keeping in mind that the book probably could not make it out until after the election.

Mapes replied: "that looks good, hypothetically speaking, of course."
Almost as soon as CBS admitted that the couldn't stand by the story, people were speculating that Mapes would be scapegoated for the entire affair. From what appears to be in his report, she hasn't been scapegoated; she's been justifiably terminated for an appalling absence of journalistic ethics. As to what the report does not say...
The second issue that the report fails to address is the communication and apparent coordination between 60 Minutes staff and the Kerry campaign. We now know that there was more communication than had previously been acknowledged. In addition to Mapes's famous phone call to Joe Lockhart, asking him to talk to Bill Burkett, she had several conversations with Chad Clanton, who also worked for the Kerry campaign. Clanton told the panel that Mapes asked him what information the Kerry campaign had gotten from other reporters about the National Guard story, and also told him about the story she was working on for 60 Minutes. So at a minimum, we know that the Kerry campaign knew about the 60 Minutes story while it was in preparation. And it is fair to assume that Clanton put the most benign interpretation on his several conversations with Mapes.

There is obvious circumstantial evidence for coordination as well as communication, given that the DNC launched its "Fortunate Son" ad campaign, which duplicated the themes of the 60 Minutes program, the very next morning after the program aired. The Thornburgh report raises some tantalizing questions about the timing of the 60 Minutes report, but does not try to answer them. First, it notes that early in the summer of 2004, Mapes wrote in an email that the program would air in September--a time usually devoted to reruns. At that time, the story had not yet coalesced; how could Mapes state with such assurance when it would run? Then, the program was moved at the last minute from late September to September 8. The Thornburgh panel attributes the haste with which the show was put together to this schedule change, but never asks why the change was made. An obvious possibility is that 1) the show was moved up because the information being put out by the Swift Boat Vets was killing John Kerry's candidacy, and the Kerry campaign wanted the show moved up to help stem the tide; and/or 2) the show was moved to September 8 to tie in with the DNC's "Fortunate Son" ad campaign. Unfortunately, the Thornburgh group seems not to have pursued this important question.

The relationship between the Kerry campaign and the 60 Minutes story is a subject that badly needs to be investigated, but the Thornburgh group did not pursue the issue beyond noting the communications between 60 Minutes staff and the Kerry campaign.
As I said yesterday, it was almost certainly too much to hope that this panel was going to come forward and point out what many people already believe - the segment was a hit piece specifically designed and timed to help the Kerry campaign. It's telling that the panel teases with these questions but does not follow up.

PowerLine's middle post from yesterday, "Mapes Runs to Daylight", fairly thoroughly fisks Mapes' press statement. I won't repeat it all here, but this should tell you all you need to know about Mapes' stance:
I believe the segment presented to the American people facts they were free to accept or reject, and that as those facts were presented, there was nothing that was false or misleading. I am heartened to see that the panel found no political bias on my part, as indeed I have none.
Any person claiming to "have no political bias" is a liar or a idiot, and Mapes has displayed herself to be quite intelligent.

In their last post of the day, PowerLine put the topic to bed with A Rather Sad Post Mortem", which pointed out The New York Times wrap-up piece on the whole sordid affair. Boiling the entire Rathergate brouhaha down to a short and concise paragraph, they offer this:
For some years now, the party line of the mainstream media has been: of course we're pretty much all Democrats, but that doesn't influence our news coverage. If nothing else, Rathergate should put that defense to rest once and for all.
My apologies for the long post. Barring some Really Big Development in this story, I'm putting this one to bed. I'm in awe of the PowerLiners and the other conservative blogs who were so tireless in following this story. Watching all of these fairly regular people write eloquently and convincingly about something they felt so passionately about contributed in large part to my decision to try my hand ad this daily exercise in thinking and writing. More on that later, I think.