“I have never been more confident of a story in my life.” So said Dan Rather, the face of CBS News for the past quarter century, moments after 60 Minutes broadcast its now-infamous report on Sept. 8 showing memos purportedly written by the late Lt. Col. Jerry B. Killian which proved that George W. Bush had received preferential treatment in the National Guard in the early 1970’s. And while questions about the validity of the documents immediately erupted on the Internet and soon after in the mainstream press, CBS News executives and Mr. Rather refused to allow even a sliver of doubt to wrinkle their stone-faced insistence that they would stand by their sources, come hell or high water. When asked if there might be any chance, however slim, that the documents were fakes, CBS News president Andrew Heyward replied, “I see no percentage of possibility.” Well, the high water has come—on the heels of Hurricanes Charley, Frances and Ivan came Hurricane Burkett, the former Army National Guard officer who turns out to have been the source for the memo story, and who now admits that he duped CBS about the origin of the memos.
“I no longer have the confidence in these documents that would allow us to continue vouching for them journalistically,” Mr. Rather finally admitted on Sept. 20, putting an end to 10 days of pointless, arrogant posturing that did neither Mr. Rather nor CBS any good. By standing by their original story rather than simply saying they might have goofed and would re-examine their reporting, Mr. Rather and his producer, Mary Mapes, put pride ahead of accuracy and did significant damage to the credibility of CBS. They also provided a massive distraction from the very real failures of the Bush administration. Indeed, with their insistent stonewalling, Mr. Rather and his colleagues ended up resembling no one so much as George W. Bush—CBS’s inability to admit a possible mistake mirroring the President’s mindless insistence that everything is just peachy in Iraq.
What’s striking is that CBS staked its reputation on a piece of reporting that was shoddy and sloppy from the start. A simple Google search before broadcasting their report would have told CBS producers that their “unimpeachable” source for the memos, Bill Burkett, had a colorful, even loopy, history of attacking President Bush in newspaper interviews and on television, such as accusing Mr. Bush of having “demonic personality shortcomings.” In one Internet chat group, Mr. Burkett claimed the President had sent “goons” to intimidate him. Moreover, Mr. Burkett had been involved in a bitter lawsuit against the Guard in 2002, and had been through a nervous breakdown and been hospitalized for depression.
Yet Mr. Rather and Ms. Mapes were determined to believe his story: When they asked him who had given him the Killian memos, Mr. Burkett replied that the original source was out of the country and could not be reached. Incredibly, CBS still didn’t smell a rat. Not even when two document examiners, Linda James and Emily Will, told the network that they couldn’t vouch for the authenticity of the memos and that there would be problems if 60 Minutes went with the story. Why did CBS recklessly run the story anyway? One unsavory clue surfaced this week, when it was reported that before the broadcast, Ms. Mapes had put Mr. Burkett in touch with Joe Lockhart, a senior official in John Kerry’s campaign. Thus not only was Ms. Mapes duped by Mr. Burkett, it would appear she was complicit in his partisan agenda.
Mr. Rather’s celebrated and distinguished career will withstand this mishap, and his apology was sincere: “This is not a day for excuses. I made a mistake, we made a mistake, and I’m sorry for it …. It was an error that was made, however, in good faith and in the spirit of trying to carry on a CBS News tradition of investigative reporting without fear or favoritism.” Traditions are all well and good, but some basic common sense is usually more effective.
The City’s Amazing Economy
When Islamic terrorists brought down the World Trade Center in 2001, they believed that New York City—the economic engine of America—would collapse as well. They were wrong.
While the city certainly suffered a terrible blow, and while thousands of New Yorkers and our neighbors will never know another day without grief, the terrorists did not achieve their larger goal. According to a study carried out by the Russell Sage Foundation, the city’s economy has recovered quickly from that terrible day of devastation downtown.
Most important of all, the Russell Sage researchers found that the fear which the terrorists hoped to instill in all of us has not taken root. There has been no flight from the city. The price of residential property hasn’t decreased; in fact, it is going through the roof.
Most businesses that were based in the destroyed World Trade Center have remained in Manhattan. They may not be downtown anymore, but the trend out of downtown and into midtown was already in motion before the attacks.
Other signs also point to New York’s astounding resiliency in the face of a barbaric attack. Employment rates are about the same, and most job losses are related not to the attacks, but to the recession that began several months before 9/11.
In addition to all of this, the city’s municipal finances are in much better shape than they were three years ago. Mayor Michael Bloomberg inherited historic budget problems thanks first to the recession and then to the immediate aftermath of 9/11. But thanks to the city’s steely resolve and refusal to give in to fear, the city is now in reasonably good shape—a fact that Mr. Bloomberg will be happy to cite during next year’s Mayoral campaign.
The Russell Sage analysis proves what many of us have known since that awful day: New York will not be cowed by zealots. We have suffered a terrible wound, and continue to mourn the lives lost that day. But we have prevailed. Our enemies have not broken us.
The High Holy Days
Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, are the holiest days in the Jewish religion. The 10 days of penitence which link these holidays are a time for reflection and consideration of the past year and the year to come. From the celebration of the Jewish New Year, heralded by the call of the shofar, to the emotional crescendo of the beautiful and mournful Kol Nidre service on the eve of Yom Kippur, those of the Jewish faith have the opportunity to assess their lives, to examine their commitments to family, friends and work, to start anew. Then, in prayers on Yom Kippur, one asks that he or she be written into the Book of Life, God’s ledger of who shall live and who shall die, based upon who has been righteous and who has not.
Naturally, many will think of the world situation. Americans have a profound connection to Israel, not least because it is the only democratic government in the entire Middle East. And while Israel has been relatively placid these past few weeks, it is troubling to see the surge in anti-Semitism in Western Europe, a region that watched most of its Jewish population perish in the Holocaust. The failure of European governments to aggressively fight anti-Semitism is a disturbing development.
And, of course, there will be much joy as families gather in New York to celebrate new beginnings and symbolically cast sins into the water. May all New Yorkers join in the spirit of renewal.