Opinion: Media Mangle

The CBS Record on Truth

Past coverage of home-schooling demonstrates the network’s sloppy approach

CBS’s evasion and defensiveness over allegedly forged documents that “60 Minutes II” used as the basis for a report that questioned President Bush’s Texas Air National Guard service is reminiscent of the way the network treated another controversial story.

Memos and notes that supposedly originated from a now deceased National Guard Lt. General, Jerry Killian, claim he was pressured to “sugarcoat” the president’s service record in the early 1970s. Many sources, including document and handwriting experts, other former guard officers, and Killian’s own family claim the documents are fakes.

At this writing CBS, and star anchor Dan Rather who delivered the report, stand by their story. But the details of the network’s stonewalling on the Bush/National Guard story are similar to its handling of a “CBS Evening News” report last year.

In October 2003 the “Evening News” aired a two-part report on “The Dark Side of Homeschooling,” in which correspondent Vince Gonzales alleged that an undercurrent of child abuse exists amidst the growing educational movement. CBS all but called for increased government oversight of homeschooling because of the supposed existing dangers.

The network based almost its entire first night’s “Eye on America” spot on a case in Johnston County, N.C., in which Nissa and Kent Warren’s 14-year-old son Brandon committed suicide after he shot to death his half-sister and brother in 2001. CBS neglected to mention that the county social services department had intervened several times in the Warren case, but failed to protect the Warrens’ three children. Instead, producers and Gonzales focused on the alleged laxity of state homeschooling laws.

The network zeroed in on the same theme in the second night’s report, offering up five more cases in which Gonzales said homeschooling was related to child abuse, although few details were provided. A review of those cases showed that other factors were in play, and that states’ homeschooling laws did not prevent authorities from identifying obvious problems. Despite objections from dozens of U.S. congressmen about the irresponsible report, CBS News President Andrew Heyward supported his division’s work. The vociferous homeschooling movement was apoplectic.

The parallels between this story and CBS’s report on President Bush’s National Guard service reveal a consistent modus operandi for its news gathering and the way it circles the wagons when under fire.

First, both stories demonstrated that CBS is more than willing to seize upon a theory and find facts to support it, scant though they might be. However Rather received the probably false Killian documents, the best his people could do was find a wealthy supporter of Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry to claim that he helped young George W. Bush avoid service in Vietnam by getting into the Guard. Meanwhile CBS seemingly — because it hasn’t made available the names of any other experts — relied on a single handwriting expert, not a document expert, to verify that the “Killian papers” were authentic. The substantiation was shaky.

Similarly in the homeschooling story, CBS developed an idea and forced evidence that didn’t fit. Rather than show that parents were able to elude detection of abuse because of homeschooling laws, Gonzales and Co. cited cases in which authorities were already aware of problems or adoptive parents weren’t thoroughly vetted. Homeschooling had nothing to do with it.

In the Bush story Killian’s son, Gary, was interviewed by “60 Minutes II,” and he gave producers the names of several individuals who would provide a conflicting account to the documents. His interview ended up on the cutting room floor and the sources he provided for the story were not used.

Hal Young, president of North Carolinians for Home Education, had a similar experience. He said he was interviewed extensively for the story and “stayed in constant contact” with CBS News as it put together its report. “We gave them every piece of information we had,” he told me, and recommended that they talk to North Carolina’s Department of Social Services about the Warren case. He also recommended the network talk to representatives of the Home School Legal Defense Association and the National Home Education Research Institute, whom Young said had national expertise on the issue. He said the CBS reporters told him it was “not the story we wanted to tell.”

Now, in the Bush case, CBS refuses to reveal how it received the papers or who its other document experts are, despite Rather’s claim that they came from “unimpeachable sources.” Under fierce criticism, the network asked handwriting expert Marcel Matley not to do interviews with other media about the report. Nor will CBS make story producer Mary Mapes available to answer questions.

Likewise in the homeschooling report, Gonzales claimed there were “dozens of cases of parents convicted or accused of murder or child abuse who were teaching their children at home, out of the public eye.” When I asked CBS News for those specific “dozens of cases,” I got a vague statement from spokeswoman Andie Silvers: “Over the several months of the CBS News investigation we were able to confirm (these) findings with news reports, government agencies, and other sources.”

In other words, just as it is now with the Bush/National Guard story, CBS News is saying “just trust us.” The preponderance of evidence and CBS’s behavioral patterns tell me not to.

Paul Chesser is associate editor of Carolina Journal. Contact him at [email protected]