When is a first strike not a first strike?
When it's Anticipatory Retaliation.

September 17, 2004

Rather Poorly Thought Out

Bravo Romeo Delta

Ok, as many of you folks know there's this whole thing with Dan Rather and forged documents. Some thoughts about all that and the tactical errors committed by the CBS folks.

First off, in recent Kerryspot posts (dated 09/17 01:37 PM) there is an explanation that talks about two types of outcomes on scandals. The first scenario is that something blows up, the evidence is denied, and then when confronted with the evidence, the guy in trouble resigns. The second model mentioned the "weathering the storm" approach of just sitting tight while fatigue sets in and people just, ultimately, let it slide.

This approach failed to mention what is often, by far and away, the best way to handle a scandal: the Reagan Model. Open up everything, let the chips fall where they may, take the hit, apologize, and move on.

Which leads to a couple of question on why it is that CBS is so assiduously avoided this path and what it may mean.

First off, we examine the defense that CBS is putting up. In their most recent story, they cite twor documents from their document examiners to bolster the notion that they were reasonable in running with the now-tainted papers. I'm disregarding the Katz and Glennon interview segments, because those were after the fact things, and not used in the initial vetting process (and for this reason, I am also excluding subsequent statements by these individuals since this thing has blown up). Furthermore, I am not going to go digging into these guys specifically, although there are some really intriguing questiosn that come about as to why both of these examiners live in California (one in SF< the other near LA), when CBS is HQ'd in New York. If they were both in the same town, then it might be something handled by a single guy wokring for CBS. It might be a-trying to fit it in a news cycle really quickly thing, but who knows? Before I wander down that tangent, however, I want to get to the specific language used in these documents is interesting, as it should be, because these examiner's credibilities are on the line on this - and in the verification world, that's kind of important.

One bit of disclosure here, is that I'm not taking the sentences in the documents which indicate that the examiners have found the documents authentic, simply because it's kind of pro-forma. If they ever want to work again, it would be a bad move to vet a document and then turn around and deny having done so. So, their claims that they found the documents to be authentic are to be expected. It is the qualifiers they felt necessary to put in that are interesting.

First off, we look at Marcel Matley's letter. The key sentence is this:

"I specifically addressed this question: On the preponderance of of the available handrwiting evidence, are the puproprted "Jerry B. Killian" signatures by the same person" (Emph. in original)

This is interesting insofar as Mr. Matley answers a very, very specific question - were the signatures written by the same people. Not anything about any of the other features of the document, like, for instance, whether or not the signature had been copied from elsewhere and physically pasted into another document. This is the sole thing that Mr. Matley is willing to stake his credibility on is something that is, by and large, not contested.

The second letter, by Mr. Pierce, is a bit more ambitious, but nonetheless, contains three interesting bits of phrasing. First off:

As a result of my examinations and comparisons, it is my opinion based on the available evidence, that the balance of the Jerry B. Killian signatures appearin gon the photocopied questioned documents are consistent and in basic agreement."

On this point he tracks with Mr. Matley, but with a bit stronger tone. Moving down to the second paragraph we get:

"In regard to the balance of the typed-written photocopied questioned documents, the same typed-face designs are strongly similar to corresponding samples that indicate the same typed-face existed prior to the date in question on the photocopied documents."

This is bit more ambitious claim, but very oddly worded. It notes that the typeface design used in the questioned documents are strongly similar to other type faces that predate the documents in question. That isn't really a question, far as I know. From what I understand, the font (which is what I think he's talking about) dates back to 1938, so there's no shock there.

But what's interesting in his document is that he starts off by noting that his opinion is "...based on the available evidence..." and closes by stating that his opinion is based on what he has "...examined based on the photocopied questioned documents..." I don't know about you all, but that sounds like hedging to me.

Anywho the point is that CBS is trotting these folks out to imply that they had reason to believe the documents were valid at the time - which is necessary to the "I've been had" defense. But you'll also note that they just can't bring themselves to say that and out-and-out admit that the documents are crooked,. which would be a painful (in the short term), but much more effective way of managing this crisis.

A bit earlier, I posited some notions on possible rationales for the strategies employed.

"The second is that someone on Rather's team was pressured (either directly by rather or through intermediate management) to dig up more dirt on the TANG angle, and in a fit of late night brilliant stupidity decided that it would be easier to make evidence than find it. One sub-scenario on this that makes this a bit more plausible is if Rather told middle manager X to go find info at all costs, and X then let this managerial dictate roll down hill (either actively or passively) and some lower-level minion might have found a way to skin the cat (ala Jayson Blair.) Manager X, recognizing a way to get Rather to go froth on someone else for a change, may have not inquired too deeply into his minion's mysterious ability to unearth the info."

Well, in the cast of characters, Manager X seems to be one Mary Mapes, who, evidently, has quite a history all her own. The mysterious minion turns out to be the estimable borderline whackjob, Bill Burkett.

But now we have to start digging a little bit deeper into the who knew what and when of the whole thing, because while this may be a possible legal matter, (note that the federal one shouldn't apply, as these aren't military records - they're personal records) the legal angles don't matter nearly as much as the credibility (and hence, revenue) angles. The reason that this is significant is that it changes the burden of proof to a "reasonable person" standard in the court of public opinion. The signficant question then becomes one of whether or not CBS was had, or whether or not they willingly promulgated the forgeries.

Now, because Rather really wants to see Bush canned, he's not going to drop the story (consider the fact that Ms. Mapes has been on this angle for 5 years), so even if he admits being rooked, he doesn't want to let that get in the way of the much older questions about his guard service. The problem is that the memos were released as a smoking gun (and tie in so nicely with this tactically foolish DNC ad (Courtesy Overpressure).

So, as a result, what they tried to do was punt on the memos, but stay locked on the story. Which, as you may have guessed, didn't work out as planned, because it makes them look like they were complicit in the whole fraud, and doesn't buy them the protection that complete openness can buy you in a scandal. Thus it seems that they were trying a half-hearted attempt at fessing up, but fouled out very badly indeed.

This raises the question of why, of all people a media outlet, is so damned bad at crisis managment and putting out their message. I think that, in large part, Dan Rather really does believe his line that this is all an attempt to distract away from the story. Secondly, he's pulled BS before, and thinks he can ride it out. CBS management, on the other hand, can't ignore the whole thing and may have wanted to come clean ASAP to move on. I believe it is that very disagreement which caused CBS' press release to be delayed way past it's original morning release a few days ago. It is also the reason that they've agreed that the documents are "questioned" but haven't gone so far as to admit they've been had. (Well that, and colossal egoism.)

But this doesn't explore the question of whether or not Rather, or Mapes, knew that the documents were false. By now, the source of the documents has been uncovered, so the original notion that they were stonewalling to protect their source is moot. But what we get to is this:

"There is more, including this: "Where the use of an anonymous source is necessary, as much information as possible about the nature [underlined] of the source should be provided to the audience, assuming, of course, that this information would not lead to disclosure of the source. Where the source may have a vested interest in the matter to be reported, it is especially important that information be provided as to the nature and/or motivation of the source."

There is no section on the use of fraudulent documents; there were things that were understood to be such obvious firing offenses that no mention of them was needed.

This is taken from the CBS News Standards document.

So, at this point, Rather in general, and Mapes in specific, have absolutely twisted the anonymity clause to cover up the fact that Bill Burkett was the source. Both Rather and Mapes knew that he stunk to high heaven and that if he were outed, it would severely compromise the integrity of Dan's scoop. So they got the documents from a really dubious source and then passed them on without looking at them too closely.

Why does this matter. Well, the deal is that Rather and company didn't necessarily know they were forged - but given their prominence, they specifically chose not to look too hard, either. And the fact that they should have, but deliberately chose not to makes them just as complicit.

Right now, the only thing for Rather to do is to investigate himself (seriously) - find that they had been forged, and keep pounding on the TANG service story in other fora. In other words, Rather has to turn on Burkett and burn him so thouroughly and vengefully, that there won't be enough left to fill an envelope. CBS can then keep him, and just roll with the punch. If he doesn't do that, he won't have enough credibility left for folks to believe him when he says the sky is blue.

If Dan doesn't, CBS should burn Rather, in a spectacularly messy, and public way. Think of it as the triage Nixon should have done after the Watergate break-ins.

But see, Dan and CBS are strange critters. The both have a long track record of distortion for the greater good. I don't think Dan will burn his source, because it would tarnish his story. I think both CBS and Dan have ridden this out in the past, and think they can do it again. Just batten down the hatches and stonewall.

This eruption has been blogged and internetted to death. And I don't pretend that blogs change the world or any such thing, but the thing is that the media is afraid that the internet might just have potential. Witness the vapor campaign run by Dean and how that was supposed to change everything. The media bought the hype. And now the question of whether or not they'll buy the hype now.

My sense is that this will break down on generational lines. Rather sure as hell doesn't get it, nor does (probably) senior management. But a lot of the much younger guys do, and think they smell blood in the water, so they'll keep this alive for a little bit.

The question then becomes one of whether or not smoke means fire. During the Dean campaign, we saw smoke without any real fire. Now we're seeing smoke again, but since this a whole collection of media folks trying to affect another collection of media folks, they might just conclude that there's fire after all.

Which, given that this whole "inauthentic, but accurate" postmodernist crap is behind this thing after all, would make it pretty funny if the blogosphere "powerless, but influential" actually turned out to be influential after all.

Launched by Bravo Romeo Delta at September 17, 2004 10:22 PM

Retaliatiory Launches

free hit counter