Sunday, February 6, 2005

I Can't Stop Thinking ...

... About the whole CBS / Dan Rather / dubious memos business.

I understand that I'm months behind the rest of the world on this. I thought about tackling the subject at the time, and I pondered it in the weeks that followed. But everyone else had their axes to grind and political bile to spill.

Let's look at this with fresh eyes. If you examine the documents in question, they should make you suspicious. I'm not saying they're fake. I haven't heard the definitive word one way or the other. But come on. They look much like documents produced on a popular, name-brand word processing software.

That's just the first point. These suddenly unearthed documents that appear to have President Bush in their sights just happen to look newly minted.

The second point? The signature of the guy who supposedly wrote the memos doesn't seem to match the signature on them. Sure, his handwriting might have been on the fritz that day. But what are the chances?

That's the second point.

So. You're a professional journalist. You see these two points in front of you. Let's not consider what the late man's family and friends might say about the memos' contents. Let's not bring up the inaccurate military terminology used. Just consider these two basic points.

What do you do?

If you have sense, you raise hell. You tell whoever found these documents to check them and check them again. You bring in competent document and handwriting experts who can reassure you beyond the shadow of a doubt the papers are authentic. In short, you work night and day to uncover the truth.

You do all of this because viewers (or readers, or Web surfers) deserve the truth. They also don't have reason to trust you if you don't present them with the truth.

Like it or not, these situations apply to all of us. In the seven-plus years I've been copy editing and reporting, I've handled similar problems. If you're a professional journalist, you probably have too. You come upon a story that's too good to be true. Or that seems to have someone else's words inserted without a credit. Or that relies on dubious sources. Or that just isn't ready for publication.

Not all of these instances rise to the level of the CBS memos. They don't have to.

Ask yourself, when such a story appears: Does it pass the smell test? What would a reasonable person off the street think? What does my gut, apart from any political considerations, tell me?

It should tell you to make damn sure the story is right. This holds for assigning editors, reporters, copy editors, slots, managing editors, on up the line. Check it out.

Do the right thing.