What's the frequency?

Bernard Goldberg brings an interesting new perspective into the Rathergate story which centered around a 60 Minutes presentation in which faked documents were presented to "prove" that future President George W. Bush received special treatment from his National Guard commander so that he did not have to go to Vietnam.

Until now, the controversy over the Rather/Mapes story has centered almost entirely on one issue: the legitimacy of the documents – a very important issue, indeed. But it turns out that there was another very important issue, one that goes to the very heart of what the story was about – and one that has gone virtually unnoticed. This is it: Mary Mapes knew before she put the story on the air that George W. Bush, the alleged slacker, had in fact volunteered to go to Vietnam.

Who says? The outside panel CBS brought into to get to the bottom of the so-called “Rathergate” mess says. I recently re-examined the panel’s report after a source, Deep Throat style, told me to “Go to page 130.” When I did, here’s the startling piece of information I found:

Mapes had information prior to the airing of the September 8 [2004] Segment that President Bush, while in the TexANG [Texas Air National Guard] did volunteer for service in Vietnam but was turned down in favor of more experienced pilots. For example, a flight instructor who served in the TexANG with Lieutenant Bush advised Mapes in 1999 that Lieutenant Bush “did want to go to Vietnam but others went first.” Similarly, several others advised Mapes in 1999, and again in 2004 before September 8, that Lieutenant Bush had volunteered to go to Vietnam but did not have enough flight hours to qualify.

This information, despite the fact that it has been available since the CBS report came out four years ago, has remained a secret to almost everybody both in and out of the media — one lonely fact in a 234- page report loaded with thousands of facts, and overshadowed by the controversy surrounding the documents.

I made an online check and discovered that while a few websites noted the CBS finding, the story got no ink (that I could find) on the news pages of any big mainstream paper. I did manage to find two opinion pieces about the CBS mess – one in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, the other in the Miami Herald — that briefly, and only in passing, mentioned the “Bush volunteered” angle. But that was it! A check of network newscasts turned up nothing. And when I questioned two journalists with intimate knowledge of the story, both said Mapes never shared her information with them.

The Goldberg story has less to do with the character (or for those who dislike GWB the lack thereof) of a Presidential candidate than with the way news isn't news until it comes to light in the same way that gold isn't gold if it's buried beneath the ground. Journalism is often less about "finding" the facts as emphasizing them; about separating a signal from an ocean of transmission. Given the vast amount of information that is out there journalism and even writing a blog can hardly be anything less. Without a filter we can be overwhelmed. So Mapes was in the filtering business from the get-go. What then about her actions, if anything, were objectionable?

Simply that the truth value of her finished message was false. It may or may not have been true that GWB was a bad President, or even a bad man. That is a separate issue. But to the specific proposition: did he evade service in Vietnam, the answer is apparently 'not true' at least on the basis of the information that Mapes had and contrary with what she chose to present. Otherwise there would have been no need to contrive the "typewritten" documents which turned out to be forgeries written in Microsoft Word's Times Roman. What Goldberg's story suggests is malice aforethought. And if one were to take offense against Mapes -- supposing that she had consciously misrepresented the facts -- it would primarily be on the grounds that she appointed herself the arbiter of what the readers were supposed to think, instead of letting them think for themselves. Every conscious lie is an act of vanity.

The hardest thing about writing for public consumption is to get yourself out of the way. For that reason bias is probably always going to be with us. The best thing most of us can do is to understand when we are close to telling a lie, or strongly drawn to uttering one and deciding to remain silent on that occasion.


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