By
updated 9/22/2004 10:04:42 AM ET 2004-09-22T14:04:42

CBS News Monday admitted that “Based on what we now know, [we] cannot prove that the documents are authentic, which is the only acceptable journalistic standard to justify using them in the report.  We should not have used them.  That was a mistake which we deeply regret.”

It was a drastic change from the network's position about a week and a half ago when they first aired the memos that suggest that President Bush disobeyed direct orders and used political pull in the National Guard.

On top of admitting a mistake, the network revealed its source, at least one of them. It was Bill Burkett, a Democrat and former Air National Guardsman, who has criticized President Bush's military record for years. CBS says Burkett told a CBS producer that his source for the documents was another former guardsman, but now says it was someone else. Someone whose “connection to the documents” and identity CBS News has been unable to verify at this point.

Regardless of Burkett's source, he was the source for CBS.  Knowing his history with the president and his political affiliation and then CBS's document experts complaining as well, it is fair to ask — what took CBS so long?

It seems clear this was a journalistic disaster that should have been realized at worst a day or two after the report aired. 

Some partisans are saying that CBS's Dan Rather likely knew that the story behind the Killian memos was shaky, but that he still aired it in an effort to help bring down the president. Others even suggest that Rather went with the story to help Sen. Kerry. 

Think about that for a moment: Senator Kerry's first major policy speech in weeks was completely eclipsed by the CBS story Monday.  Many are now questioning whether Democrats are behind any forgery. 

Does all this help Kerry? 

More likely, what happened was overeager, possibly reckless, journalism.

I've been there before: Someone offers information that seems credible and could make you the journalism star of the week with a big exclusive.  You feel the juices flowing, and you're thinking, “This is why I do this for a living.”

For example, in some cases I've covered, I've been leaked documents that seem to help the defense. And even though I'm personally convinced the person is guilty, I'd still go with it if it's true. 

Journalists have to be careful. Everyone claims to have the document or the inside scoop that will make or break the case. Here CBS’s problem was probably wanting the glory, rather than wanting to impact the election.

To those of you who have suggested that Rather knew the documents were fake and believed he would never get caught, I say, “You don't know Dan Rather.”  He may be a lot of things, but fool not one of them.  If he thought there was a chance these documents were fake, he just wouldn't have done it, and certainly would have realized the repercussions that this would forever stain a 50-year career. 

Now, that in no way excuses CBS and Rather's choices. It just eliminates one possible motivation. You can argue that Burkett was driven by politics and maybe he even went to Rather because he thought he would have a more receptive audience.

Fine, that may have been Burkett's motivation, but Rather and CBS likely just wanted the scoop too much — pure journalistic failure, not a political failure. 

In this ever competitive day and age, getting the scoop matters.  You want it to be true because no matter who it helps, it means you are excelling at your job. 

That's not politics — it's just self-esteem and pride.

'The Abrams Report' airs weeknights, 6 p.m. ET on MSNBC.

Discuss:

Discussion comments

,