16/09/04 ACTION ALERT: The Mysterious Case of the CBS Memos


Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting

Media analysis, critiques and activism

September 16, 2004

The secretary of George W. Bush's National Guard commander, coming forward to describe memos supposedly written by her boss as “correct” but “not real” (Dallas Morning News, 9/14/04), has deepened the mystery about the disputed documents.

Marian Carr Knox is a compelling witness who provides substantive reasons to doubt the authenticity of the memos bearing the signature of Lt. Col. Jerry Killian— forcing CBS News to run an interview with her (CBS Evening News and 60 Minutes II, 9/15/04) that cast doubt on aspects of its September 9 reporting on the Bush Guard story. At the same time, she debunked several of the specific reasons other news outlets had given for questioning the memos that were featured in that report.

For example, an ABC News report (Nightline, 9/9/04) questioning the documents featured members of Killian's family charging that their relative would not have written anything like these memos. Killian's widow asserted that he “did not take copious notes” and “carried everything in his mind,” while his son said, “It was not the nature of my father to keep private files like this, nor would it have been in his own interest to do so.”

Knox, however, told the New York Times (9/15/04) that “Mr. Killian had her type memorandums recording the problems” with Bush's Guard service, and that “he kept them in a private file under lock and key.”

Like many skeptics of the documents, ABC also drew attention to superscript characters that appear in the memos (Good Morning America, 9/10/04), stating that “forgery experts…say that this kind of superscript was not available on a typewriter in 1972 or 1973.” Yet Knox (Dallas Morning News, 9/14/04) said that her old typewriter, while not used to create the memos CBS featured, did “ha[ve] a key with the 'th' superscript character that has been the focus of much debate in the CBS memos.”

Several other assertions made by document experts in an ABC (9/10/04) online piece appear to be similarly ill-grounded. “The font used in the memos is Times Roman, which was in use for printing but not in typewriters,” ABC reported. Actually, Times New Roman, as the font is usually called, was adapted for the IBM Selectric (a brand of typewriter Knox said she used— Dallas Morning News, 9/14/04) by the font's original designer, Stanley Morison, in the late 1960s (AIGA Design Forum, 3/10/04; Media Matters, 9/10/04).

(Much has been made of the fact that the typeface apparently used in the memos resembles the default typeface of the common Microsoft Word word-processing program, which is Times New Roman. But a side-by-side comparison of the characters in the document with MS Word characters shows that they are obviously not identical; the numeral characters in particular are quite distinct. See JuliusBlog, 9/10/04).

With a credible first-hand witness to Killian's correspondence coming forward to cast doubt on the memos' authenticity, however, one has to conclude that the skeptics of the documents may well be right, if for many of the wrong reasons. (Some skeptics did raise the same questions involving terminology used in the memos that were cited by Knox in her comments.)

But while Knox greatly undermines the documentation of the CBS reporting, it is important for critics to recognize that she corroborates the substance of that reporting. “The information in them is correct,” she told the New York Times (9/15/04). “It looks like someone may have read the originals and put that together.”

That “someone,” a report in Newsweek (9/30/04) suggested, may have been Bill Burkett, a former Texas National Guard lieutenant colonel who has charged that Bush's Guard records were culled in 1997 to eliminate “anything there that will embarrass the [then] governor” (Dallas Morning News, 2/11/04). While these charges were dismissed by the White House at the time, if Burkett is the source of memos that accurately reflect the thinking of Bush's commander, that would support the notion that Burkett had access to National Guard files that no longer seem to exist. An anonymous person at CBS told the Times— 9/15/04— that Burkett was a source for the network's reporting, but did not say that he provided the memos.

If Burkett is the source of the documents, it's not certain that the memos are forged recreations and not originals. Dennis Adams, a Guard associate of Burkett's, told the New York Times (9/16/04) that Burkett told him of the document destruction, and that “some of the things in the trash were pulled out.” Given that the documents have not yet been conclusively shown to have been created on a computer, it remains a possibility that they are originals salvaged by Burkett— perhaps typed by someone other than Knox.

Nevertheless, the testimony by Knox does raise questions about whether CBS News exercised due diligence in evaluating the memos before using them to buttress its September 9 reporting. Some document experts have said subsequently that CBS ignored concerns they raised about the memos (ABC News, 9/14/04; Washington Post, 9/15/04), which could indicate that the network cut corners in its fact-checking process.

On the other hand, CBS could have been legitimately reassured that some of the issues that the experts raised— such as the use of superscript— were not incompatible with documents of the era. An internal review of CBS's newsgathering on this story could help to clear up questions about the network's journalistic performance.

And even if CBS stands by its promise of confidentiality to the source who provided the memos, the network could do more to help other news outlets investigate the origins of the curious documents— notably by releasing higher-quality scans that would facilitate analysis of their production. (USA Today, which reported having copies of the same documents, could also make high-quality electronic versions available.)

But media should not lose sight of the fact that if questions about how CBS reported this story are important, it is mainly because the story itself is important. The information in the memos that Knox vouched for includes assertions that Bush was suspended from flying for refusal to obey a direct order to take a required flight physical, and for failure to perform to standards of the Texas Air National Guard. Knox also bolsters the allegation that Bush's commanding officer was under pressure to “sugar coat” Bush's records— and that he was willing to “backdate” records to benefit Bush.

The fact that someone was able to bring these charges to CBS, even though they no longer seem to exist in Bush's official records, lends at least some credence to the very serious charge that Bush's records have been sanitized. Whether or not CBS's journalistic standards will hold up under the scrutiny they will no doubt receive in coming days, it's clear that evidence of an official cover-up of Bush's service record is a more pressing story than whatever reportorial failings Dan Rather might be guilty of.

ACTION: Please encourage CBS News to conduct a review of the standards used in its September 9 reporting on Bush's National Guard service— while continuing to pursue the important questions raised in that reporting about a possible cover-up of Bush's record.

CONTACT: CBS Evening News

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