'Memogate' torpedoes Dan Rather and CBS

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The Independent US

The winner of the US Presidential election has yet to be decided. But a couple of losers are already apparent - CBS News, which ran the now largely discredited memos about George Bush's time in the Texas Air National Guard, and the network's veteran anchorman, Dan Rather.

The winner of the US Presidential election has yet to be decided. But a couple of losers are already apparent - CBS News, which ran the now largely discredited memos about George Bush's time in the Texas Air National Guard, and the network's veteran anchorman, Dan Rather.

Yesterday CBS, though acknowledging that questions surrounded the Vietnam-era documents. was still refusing to admit they were forgeries. Mr Rather, too, was standing by his story, that the future President got into the guard thanks to family connections, and that he shirked some of his duties.

But the evidence is accumulating that the memos themselves are fakes, by all accounts faxed to CBS from a stationery store in Abilene, Texas - possibly by a Texas Democrat with a long history of antagonism to the Bushes.

The memos, purporting to date from 1972 and 1973, and bearing the photocopied signature of Lieutenant Colonel Jerry Killian, Mr Bush's former guard commander, bear signs of having been generated on a modern computer. They also contain factual discrepancies. Col Killian's widow insists her husband would never have sent such memos, while the secretary supposed to have typed them has denied she ever did.

Some especially paranoid Democrats, still smarting from the direct-hit Swift Boat veterans ads which managed to sow doubts about the Vietnam record of the acknowledged war hero John Kerry, see the debacle as a classic Republican "dirty trick". The culprit, in their minds, is that prince of the political black arts Karl Rove, the President's close adviser and strategist (who, legend has it, even arranged to have his own office bugged in a past campaign where he was working as a consultant, to discredit his boss's opponent.) If CBS, however, has been duped, the network appears the author of its own misfortune, having ignored warnings even from its own forensic specialists that the memos might be dodgy.

For Mr Rather himself, the dispute is another acrimonious brush with power in a career studded with them. For the moment, he is adopting what might be called the "Gilligan defence", pioneered by the BBC journalist in the corporation's 2003 row with the Government over the "sexed-up" Iraq weapons dossier.

In both cases, the accused party claims that, whatever the doubts about the supporting evidence, the basic story was true. Just as the BBC insisted that 10 Downing Street had exaggerated the Saddam Hussein threat, so Mr Rather (who continues to insist the documents are authentic) maintains that there is no doubt the President did receive preferential treatment, and that there are gaping holes in his guard record, especially in Alabama in late 1972 and 1973.

Intriguingly, even Col Killian's secretary has said that, while the memos seemed to be fakes, they did reflect what her boss was thinking at the time.

But that has not stemmed the criticism of both the network and its star anchor. For CBS, the debacle has besmirched the name of its most prestigious news magazine 60 Minutes - even though the midweek 60 Minutes II show which ran the story on 8 September is editorially separate from the flagship Sunday evening 60 Minutes. For Mr Rather's detractors, the affair is further proof that the 72-year-old anchor is a dyed-in-the-wool liberal. Boasting their own website, Ratherbiased.com, these critics point to his long history of tangling with Republican presidents and Republican contenders.

Back in 1988, he clashed with George H W Bush during a live interview, when the then vice-President accused Mr Rather of "ambushing" him with unfair questions - standard stuff on the BBC, but a rarity on deferential American television. Fourteen years earlier, he had an angry exchange with President Nixon, at the height of the Watergate scandal. Now it is the turn of the younger Bush.

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