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Jewish World Review Sept. 20, 2004 / 5 Tishrei, 5765

Diana West

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Can there be truth in forgery? | If George Orwell could have teamed up with Lewis Carroll, maybe, just maybe, they could have concocted something as down-the-rabbit-hole outlandish as the current CBS wisdom on those four almost universally discredited memos trashing George W. Bush's Air National Guard service. After a week in the media pillory, beginning in the blogosphere and spreading even to the mainstream media bastions of The Washington Post and ABC News, Dan Rather and CBS have suggested, barely, that their documents may be fake. They insist, though, that the content is accurate. "Those who have criticized aspects of our story have never criticized the heart of it, the major thrust of our report," Dan Rather told viewers Wednesday night.

Whoop-de-do. Even if this were so (it's not), it's no Good Housekeeping seal of approval. After all, what's the point of tearing out the "heart" of totally phony "aspects"? If something is pronounced a forgery, it does not exactly follow that the forgery is also accurate. Who could think such a thing — who, that is, besides CBS?

Enter Marian Carr Knox, the 86-year-old former secretary who spent 22 years at Ellington Air Force Base working for different officers, among them the late Lt. Col. Jerry Killian. It's Lt. Col. Killian's name, of course, that appears on the Keystone Kop-sloppy documents on which CBS has staked its story, its anchorman and its reputation, maybe through the heart. Knox might have remained a peripheral figure, but having pronounced the memos fake but accurate, the retired typist has emerged as CBS' poster girl.

Knox's media presence has been brief but intense. The earliest reference I could find appears deep in a Houston Chronicle story: "Last week, Knox said she had no first-hand knowledge of Bush's time with the Texas Air National Guard, although she did recall a culture of special treatment for the sons of prominent people, such as Bush and others." No first-hand knowledge? What a difference a week makes. "I remember vividly when Bush was there and all the yak-yak that was going on about it," Knox told the Dallas Morning News. She also piped up about Bush being "unfit for office" and "selected, not elected."

By the time she met up with The New York Times, Knox had just about morphed into Lt. Col. Killian's old aide-de-camp. "We did discuss Bush's conduct and it was a problem Killian was concerned about," the former typist told the newspaper of record. Her bottom line: the CBS docs are fake but accurate. Indeed, The New York Times titled its story, "Memos on Bush Are Fake But Accurate, Typist Says."

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The Times also interviewed David Van Os, a lawyer whose client, former Lt. Colonel Bill Burkett, is strongly suspected of being the source of the CBS memos. Van Os had this to say about fakery and accuracy: "If someone in the year 2004 had prepared on a word processor replicas of documents that they believed had existed in 1972 or 1973 — which Bill Burkett has absolutely not done," he added — "what difference would it make?"

What difference would it make? Truth, proof and the rules of evidence aren't faring too well when an actual lawyer needs reminding that passing phony government documents — even "replicas" — as the real McCoy is rather widely considered fraud. Which is a crime. But maybe things have to get worse before they get better. According to the Los Angeles Times editorial page, "CBS' real error was trying to prove a point that really didn't need to be proved." In other words, the media don't need fakes or replicas in order to be accurate. Just take our word.

Which brings us back to Dan Rather, who seems to have taken the L.A. Times' editorial to heart.

("Courage," as he might say.) Having seen the authenticity of his precious memos shrivel up and die under the scrutiny of responsible media, Rather has junked the rules of journalism, relaying to his audience not what the evidence tells him, but what he wants to tell his audience: that George Bush was a National Guard screw-up. Why is he doing this? This is where things get really weird. As he told the New York Observer this week, "the truth of these documents lies in the signatures and in the content, not just the typeface and the font-style." Come again? Summing up Rather's opinion, the newspaper wrote that the "supposed stalemate" over the documents' authenticity "left nothing but the truth at the center of the documents."

Huh? Guess we'll just have to take Dan's word for it. And why not? This is CBS News: Fake but accurate.

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JWR contributor Diana West is a columnist and editorial writer for the Washington Times. Comment by clicking here.

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© 2004, Diana West