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The Boccardi-Thornburgh report leaves some questions unanswered

COMMENTARY | January 12, 2005

Phil Meyer writes that the CBS investigative panel focuses more on procedures and less on the story itself, and that it offers at least one promising lead for reporters to pick up on.

By Philip Meyer


The CBS investigative panel left three important questions unanswered. If journalism is still strong in this nation, they will not remain mysteries forever.


Lawyers and journalists develop an instinct for the relevant, and Louis D. Boccardi and Dick Thornburgh displayed it in their detailed report. They focused on the people and the procedures that led Dan Rather and his producers to mishandle the story on President Bush’s National Guard service.


But we still don’t know what happened. First, the report doesn’t even confirm that the incriminating documents were indeed fakes. Second, it doesn’t tell us where they came from. Third, it sheds very little light on the underlying issue: Did President Bush shirk his military duty while the war in Vietnam was on?


The first one is easy. The documents were fake. It’s indisputable. Although the report goes out of its way to announce “no finding as to the authenticity” of the documents, it confirms what we old-timers remember: There was no typewriting equipment available at the time to produce their proportionally spaced Times Roman letters with superscript.


There was type-setting equipment, but that’s not the same thing. The report keeps the prospect of the documents’ legitimacy alive by mentioning the existence of the IBM Selectric Composer in the years that Bush was in the Texas Air National Guard. It even calls it a “typewriter,” which it was not.


The IBM Selectric Composer was a very expensive machine (five figures in 2005 dollars) used to set cold type for offset printing. It had proportional spacing (meaning that the letter “i” takes up less space than the “m,” and it could right-justify the lines). And its available typefaces included an approximation of Times Roman. But it is beyond belief that the Guard would own one, much less use it for routine office work.


Knowing that the documents are bogus makes it all the more important to find out where they came from. If we don’t, our lives will be forever haunted by conspiracy theorists trying to prove that Republicans created them to divert attention from the substance of Bush’s military record.


The trail of the documents stops cold with retired Army National Guard Lt. Co. Bill Burkett, who gave, at different times, different stories about how he got them. The panel tried to talk to him, but he refused unless it would agree not to use the information he gave it. Wisely, Boccardi and Thornburgh declined. About all we can hope for is that the next investigators will have subpoena power.


On the third issue, George W. Bush and Vietnam, the report offers a lead that journalists can still follow if they have the stomach for it. The basic moral issue for draft dodgers is this: even if you don’t believe in a given war, whatever action you take to get out of it will lead to somebody else having to fight in your place. With war, good or bad, we’re all in it together.


When President Bush joined the Texas Air National Guard, he went to Moody Air Force Base and trained alongside young Air Force officers who knew they were headed to Vietnam when they got their wings. They were also bound to know that George W. Bush was destined for weekend duty defending the Texas skies from potential invaders from Cuba.


How come, when this was a hot issue in the presidential campaign, did no journalistic organization have the enterprise to find one of Bush’s Vietnam-bound contemporaries and ask what he thought of the Air National Guard?


The CBS panel provides an opening to this issue when it quotes the son of Lt. Col George Killian, commander of Bush’s fighter-interceptor squadron, as reporting that the fact that Bush was the only Texas Air National Guard pilot in his Air Force training class “created morale problems for the unit.” Sounds like a story to me.


Some of the talking heads have suggested that this case demonstrates that journalism is falling apart. I believe quite the opposite. CBS is less powerful than it was in the days of Edward R. Murrow and Fred Friendly, but truth can surface faster and more efficiently in this era of many voices.


Mass media used to control the public agenda, determining what we would think about and what topics would never come up. But the mass is gone from the media now, and the public has the power to hold the new journalism to higher standards. Truth still comes out, but, as in the case of the discredited documents, it comes from unexpected places. We just have to get used to it.


Response to Lukasiak
Posted by Philip Meyer - School of Journalism and Mass Communication, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
01/15/2005, 02:32 PM

Good find! Page 6 is indeed a proportionally-spaced manuscript dated Feb. 19, 1971. And it therefore meets one of the three tests. The others are Times Roman type, or an approximation thereof, and true superscript where the tops of the letters rise above the line.
If I were an enterprising journalist instead of a grouchy old professor, I would track down Peter Tytell, the New York typewriter expert, and ask him what machine might have created this 1971 document and whether other versions of it could have met the other two tests. If such a machine existed, how hard could it be find one? This isn't archeology -- yet.

CBS News
The 234-page Boccardi-Thornburgh report in its entirety. (A PDF file)

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