Friday, November 11, 2005

The Mapes Dilemma

Mary Mapes is on the book circuit, promoting her ironically titled tome, Truth and Duty. I've seen a few interviews with her on the topic, and I'll give her this: she is either a great liar, or she actually believes what she is peddling. Which is one of the first rules of the public relations game--believe what you say because it's easy to spot a faker. But in so doing, she breaks that rule's corollary: the stuff you say must be believable to reasonable people.

Mapes, like her partner, Dan Rather, believes the National Guard story with all her heart. And I really believe she does. But I believe that there is a measure of dishonesty behind her position. She knows that her investigation was wanting, and very clearly hedges in her answers, revealing her true position--she is mad at bloggers for exposing the story and CBS for "caving" and then firing her. But let's look at her major points.

The bloggers were full of hate and tore apart her story. The INDC Journal post is instructive. The bloggers disputed the story and produced demonstrative evidence showing that the claims were false. Whether they hated CBS, Rather or Mapes is irrelevant. The point is that they raised some very valid questions about the authenticity of the documents upon which Mapes's and Rather's story was based, leading just about everyone (except Mapes and Rather, that is) to believe that they were forgeries. It wasn't hate, but rather facts that has Mapes upset. She just hates that someone called her bluff.

But in her interviews, the points she raises and how she dodges questions reveals much more than intended by the words used in her answers.

Bill O'Reilly queried her about her political beliefs. It was an artless and embarrassing dodge. She can't recall with which party she is registered to in Texas, claims that her teenage son thinks she's a conservative parent, and that she is conservative on some issues and liberal on others. Thanks for clarifying that you're a liberal!

And then she offered to both O'Reilly and E.D. Hill on Fox & Friends an interesting explanation for how she was able to believe in the documents that eventually cost her her career. She said that the forensic examination played a minor role to what appeared to be an agreement between the substance of the Burkett documents and "other documents". But she never clarified what the "other documents" were, and what the alleged agreements were between them. We've never seen them, and they would be helpful in getting to the bottom of the issue. Point? Bill Burkett provided her all the documents she had. She had nothing else to go on, beyond personal suspicion. Which brings us to authenticity and her motive for not taking seriously some very obvious warning signs that the documents were frauds.

The indicia of fraud is huge. The papers came from Burkett, a man with a huge ax to grind against Bush. He also wanted a bit of notoriety, as he asked to be connected to the Kerry campaign in exchange for turning over the papers. Their chain of custody and sourcing is nonexistent--a big red flag. And the document experts were warning her that they could not vouch for their authenticity, and in fact seemed to raise enough questions to give a reasonable person pause. But as I opined earlier, Mapes is not behaving like a reasonable person.

Mapes believes, in a stunning tautological fallacy that the documents are valid because she believes the story they tell. And she believed the story all the more because of the documents. A pretty intellectually dangerous place for a journalist to stake her credibility. And as Bill O'Reilly gently explained to her, her belief or desire that the documents be authentic does not make them so. She has indicated that she is willing to hear any new evidence about the validity of the documents, but if the expert testimony and other factors that killed the story and her career didn't give her pause, I doubt that anything else will. And so the position she now holds is that it was not her duty to prove the documents' authenticity, but rather the duty of others to disprove them. In other words, she has license to write whatever stories she likes, and it is the job of the stories' victims, after having been slimed, to restore their reputations.

But the notion that a political angle was not present is pure hogwash. Mapes denies that politics entered her calculus, but her actions say otherwise. The warnings about the documents were pretty serious by any journalistic standard, and certainly by the standard that CBS was known to keep as a matter of policy. Which in itself does not kill the story; you just give it some time until something more reliable, or even more damning comes to light. But Mapes didn't have time in early September of 2004.

John Kerry was losing the election. He had spent the past two weeks on the ropes, taking a pummelling on his military career from the Swift Boat Veterans. Kerry's refusal or inability to respond effectively to those attacks (other than sending Max Cleland to Crawford in a pathetic display to ask the President who played no role in it to stop the Swift Boat Veteran ads) had him on the ropes, looking like a phony. Hitting Bush on his Texas Air National Guard service would get Kerry's troubles off of the front page. And if it took another year to vet the story, it would not have anywhere near the political impact as it would before a tight election. Too much history of bias, and so much politically at stake for this not to be seen for the hit job it was intended to be.

But rather than going quietly away, Mapes writes her fairly myopic book in an effort to shift the blame upon her former employer who she thinks should have defended her and upon the bloggers who should never have exposed her story's weaknesses. Instead of being a legitimate part of the public debate, Mapes does not see the fact that she is making herself an object of public ridicule by claiming that she doesn't see in the evidence what the rest of the nation (save Dan Rather) very clearly does.

If she had waited for more credible evidence to advance her story, it could have been a bombshell. But if that happened now, the story remains a dog, forever to be viewed as the product of two journalists known for liberal biases, eager to score a political hit on a President whom they did not favor.

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