Investigative reporters were once cautioned to never describe the target of an exposé as wearing a brown coat if it happened to be a dark shade of tan. No matter how accurate the substance of the story, a trivial error can result in a bad guy (or gal) attacking it on the basis that you can’t believe a reporter who is unable to distinguish between brown and tan.
In the case of Dan Rather and his intrepid CBS News muckraking colleagues, the brown coat was described as blue. And Dan still can’t stop singing the blues about his color blindness. The most recent whine is contained in a newly released book by the former CBS anchorman, Rather Outspoken: My Life in the News.
A good portion of Rather’s book is devoted to a Sixty Minutes Wednesday segment in September 2004 that accused then President George W. Bush of being an AWOL Texas Air National Guard slacker during the Vietnam War. The CBS story was accurate in many respects. However, a corroborating document was highly suspect—a forgery in all probability—though Rather continues to believe it was authentic. At least in content.
Relying on his daddy’s influence to avoid the line of fire in Vietnam, George the Lesser finagled a spot in an air guard jet pilot training program, risking his life to keep the nation safe from an invasion by Mexico. Pilot wings later gave the future President an opportunity to wear full flight gear in a visit to an aircraft carrier that posted the farcial sign, “Mission Accomplished.” I couldn’t read the small print, but it must have read, “In another seven years—maybe.”
Anyway, after being trained as a pilot at government expense, the future President found ways to avoid the inconvenience of fulfilling his military obligation. Bush being a slacker is indisputable. A disputable fact relates to a supposedly contemporaneous document in the CBS story giving details of Bush’s dereliction of duty. Type face and font style indicate the memorandum could not have been written in the 1970’s.
Despite Rather’s public apology, his decision to resign and the dismissal of a lawsuit he filed against CBS executives for forcing his departure, the veteran newsman continues to have faith in the story and the memo. Sort of. Regardless, the lead producer who developed the controversial report and four other network employees bit the dust in the aftermath of an internal investigation commissioned by CBS News. Dan believes the results of the probe were to protect President Bush and the cowardly CBS hierarchy. But the court could find no evidence to support a conspiracy to boot Rather from his anchor chair. My advice, Dan, is get over it.
I speak as the voice of experience. My muckraking career ended under similar circumstances. For ten years, I was Senior Investigative Correspondent in CNN’s Special Assignment Unit, a collection of several of television’s leading muckrakers. As I wrote in my memoir, Odyssey of a Derelict Gunslinger, I became a collateral casualty following an outbreak of shrinking testicles among network executives.
Special Assignment’s demise is a story of what happens to television investigative reporting in a corporate environment. A single segment resulted in an epidemic of shriveled balls that swept through the network in 1998. The virus was spawned by an “exposé” accusing the U.S. military of using nerve gas in a clandestine operation during the Vietnam War. The mission was conducted by an elite commando unit that crossed the border into Laos for the alleged purpose of either capturing or killing American defectors suspected of collaborating with enemy forces encamped in the “neutral country.”
Produced by Special Assignment, the story was titled Valley of Death. It is better known as Tailwind, the name given the secret mission. The segment was to be a “holy shit” blockbuster bringing attention to a new prime-time Sunday night program called, NewsStand: CNN & TIME. It was a blockbuster all right, but for all the wrong reasons.
Instead of divulging military secrets, the “exposé” revealed the pitfalls of television muckraking. Encapsulated in an eighteen-minute segment were overstatements, injudicious editing, lack of context, and omissions of relevant facts. The fiasco is a paradigm of flaws, blunders and decisions epitomizing the superficial mentality that is an obstacle to serious television investigative reporting. The story also embodied the perils of muckraking in a profit-driven media conglomerate that placed more emphasis on ratings and image than on courage and journalistic principle.
In the face of intense criticism from the Pentagon, CNN adopted a policy of appeasement and finger-pointing. Two producers were summarily fired, a distinguished war correspondent was held up to public ridicule and two esteemed executives resigned―one under pressure, the other in protest. All were victims of corporate cowardice. My role in the ignominy was limited to being a clean-up reporter. I was dispatched after the story aired to prove it true.
Unfortunately, I discovered that my colleagues had goofed. The brown coat was polka dotted in that there was evidence our people may have gotten the nerve gas allegation right—but it took place at a different time by a different military unit and in a different country, Cambodia. I give complete details in my book.
CNN executives had no interest in pursuing the story, telling me to forget it. They had already made human sacrifices to appease the Pentagon. My attitude toward the network’s surrender no doubt contributed to a buy out of my contract—a copper parachute, so to speak. I was more than ready to depart and collect full salary for the next two years.
The nerve gas story had a profound impact on me, my career and my attitude about the future of television investigative reporting. If a Journalism Hall of Infamy is ever created, Tailwind will occupy a prominent place alongside Dan Rather’s 2004 calamitous exposé.
Investigative reporting is an inexact science. We gamble that sources deemed reliable are telling the truth and corroborating material we collect is accurate. But there is always that one percent chance that my perception of truth, or Dan Rather’s, or any competent muckraker’s interpretation of facts can be wrong. Indeed, investigative reporting requires management to have cojones to back reporters unless, of course, they knowingly misrepresent facts.
In high risk journalism, diggers of dirt must have the right to be wrong, especially when describing the color of coats.
My memoir, Odyssey of a Derelict Gunslinger: A Saga of Exposing TV Preachers, Corrupt Politicians, Right-Wing Lunatics…and Me is available at amazon.com, soft-cover or Kindle and at independent bookstores like the Cottonwood in Baton Rouge. It offers $19.99 worth of laughs and much more. The book is an account of my illustrious (I choose the adjectives) investigative reporting career.