Reports on George W. Bush’s Evasion of Wartime Duty Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

CBS News correspondent Dan Rather presented documents in a 2004 report on 60 Minutes II that questioned U.S. president George W. Bush’s Air National Guard service during the 1970’s. The Killian documents, as they came to be called, accused Bush of having received favors to make his military record look better than it was. The documents were widely considered fakes, permanently damaging the reputations of both Rather and CBS.

Summary of Event

On September 8, 2004, CBS television broadcast a controversial story that was highly critical of U.S. president George W. Bush’s military record with the U.S. Army Air National Guard. Almost immediately following the broadcast, reported by long-time news anchor and journalist Dan Rather, competing media sources began to question the validity of the evidence presented in the story and to criticize CBS for broadcasting the report. The Killian documents, as they came to be called, were widely considered to have been fabricated. Following the outpouring of criticism, CBS fired Mary Mapes, the producer of the segment, as well as several others who were involved in the broadcast. Rather resigned from the CBS news desk less than one year later. [kw]Bush’s Evasion of Wartime Duty, 60 Minutes II Reports on George W. (Sept. 8, 2004) Killian documents scandal "Memogate"[Memogate] 60 Minutes II[sixty minutes 02];George W. Bush[Bush] Rather, Dan Bush, George W. [p]Bush, George W.;military service of Mapes, Mary Air National Guard Killian documents scandal "Memogate"[Memogate] 60 Minutes II[sixty minutes 02];George W. Bush[Bush] Rather, Dan Bush, George W. [p]Bush, George W.;military service of Mapes, Mary Air National Guard [g]United States;Sept. 8, 2004: 60 Minutes II Reports on George W. Bush’s Evasion of Wartime Duty[03430] [c]Radio and television;Sept. 8, 2004: 60 Minutes II Reports on George W. Bush’s Evasion of Wartime Duty[03430] [c]Communications and media;Sept. 8, 2004: 60 Minutes II Reports on George W. Bush’s Evasion of Wartime Duty[03430] [c]Publishing and journalism;Sept. 8, 2004: 60 Minutes II Reports on George W. Bush’s Evasion of Wartime Duty[03430] [c]Politics;Sept. 8, 2004: 60 Minutes II Reports on George W. Bush’s Evasion of Wartime Duty[03430] [c]Military;Sept. 8, 2004: 60 Minutes II Reports on George W. Bush’s Evasion of Wartime Duty[03430] Burkett, Bill

At the time of the scandal, Rather was one of the most recognizable journalists of his time. He rose to become the head anchor on CBS Evening News in 1981 and achieved success as a contributing reporter with 60 Minutes. He was at the top of the journalism world already during the 1960’s as a hard-hitting correspondent during the Vietnam War and for his unswerving interview with President Richard Nixon during the early 1970’s. He covered some of the most significant stories in the United States throughout the 1980’s and 1990’s, and in 2004, he broke a story that would turn out to be his most controversial yet.

On September 4, Rather decided to report a story on Bush’s military record. The report presented several documents that made Bush’s time in the armed services seem less than honorable. The memos, believed to be drawn up while Bush was in the National Guard during the early 1970’s, documented incidences where Bush blatantly disobeyed orders by failing to report for scheduled physical examinations—leading to the revocation of his flight status—and by asking to be excused from certain activities, such as military drills. The memos also insinuated that the Bush family’s political power was used to ensure that the future president’s record was devoid of this negative information. In essence, the Killian documents, if real, would have proven that Bush’s military record had been made to appear much better than it actually was.

Because the story was aired so close to election time, the broadcast sparked an immediate media frenzy. Many quickly stepped forward to question the validity of the documents themselves as well as the integrity and political bias of CBS and Rather. Initially, CBS stuck by the report, stating that the documents used had been well researched, but as investigations into the origin of the documents continued, it seemed more and more that the military memos were inaccurate, if not fraudulent.

As inquiries grew more tense, 60 Minutes II segment producer Mapes came forward to defend the origin of the story’s material. Mapes, an award winning journalist and long-time CBS producer, acquired the memos in question from Bill Burkett, a retired National Guard lieutenant colonel. Burkett claimed he had retrieved the memos from the personal files of the deceased lieutenant colonel Jerry B. Killian, who was President Bush’s commander during his time in the National Guard. In the weeks following the story, Mapes and CBS maintained that Burkett was an accurate source and that the information he acquired regarding the president was truly from Killian’s personal files.

However, as critical analysis intensified, independent researchers began to repudiate the origin of the memos and the time in which they were created. Before Rather’s broadcast on September 8, Mapes and her associates had interviewed several people, in addition to Burkett, to ensure that the documents were legitimate, but this fact ultimately did not help CBS in defending its story, because the documents they had in their possession were only copies of the supposed originals. Unfortunately, Burkett told Mapes that he had burned the original Killian documents after he sent the copies to CBS headquarters, an action that fueled the argument that the documents were fraudulent.

Two weeks after the broadcast, Rather and CBS were forced to retract the story; the evidence in support of the Killian documents was simply not present. However, evidence was also lacking that the documents were faulty. Independent investigators found that the documents had inconsistencies in letterhead, signature, and date of production. Some investigators did conclude, however, that Killian’s signature seemed to match the signature on the memos. Ultimately, the investigators could not prove or disprove that the documents were fraudulent because they were copies.

What led investigators and other media sources to discredit the story were the inconsistencies in Burkett’s account of how he obtained the documents. Burkett changed his story several times. Initially, he said he received the documents through a warrant officer who had access to Killian’s files, but he later claimed to have collected them by other means. In the end, the documents could not be authenticated.

Impact

CBS, Mapes, and Rather apologized publicly for reporting the story and said that they recognize their mistakes in not researching the matter fully before its broadcast. However, the damage to CBS’s journalistic reputation had already been done. In response to the accusations by outside forces that CBS was operating under a liberal bias and had been trying to sabotage the coming elections, the network fired several employees associated with the production of the story. Less than one year later, Rather resigned from his news anchor position after nearly forty years in journalism.

CBS and Rather have had a difficult time recovering from the harm that was done to their reputations. Rather filed a lawsuit against CBS in 2007, alleging that the network laid the sole blame for the story on him, which permanently damaged his career. However, the greatest damage seems to have been done to the field of journalism itself.

Further investigations have looked into the Killian documents scandal, but none have proved that the documents are real. The controversy has raised many questions about the true motivation behind news reporting in the United States. The debate continues over the scandal, and many questions remain: Was the story politically biased against Bush, and was it aired to harm his campaign? Did CBS make a genuine mistake by airing the report? In any case, investigative journalism in the United States was left with a permanent scar. Killian documents scandal "Memogate"[Memogate] 60 Minutes II[sixty minutes 02];George W. Bush[Bush] Rather, Dan Bush, George W. [p]Bush, George W.;military service of Mapes, Mary Air National Guard

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hindman, Elizabeth Blanks. “Black Eye: The Ethics of CBS News and the National Guard Documents.” Journal of Mass Media Ethics 23, no. 2 (April, 2008): 90-109. A scholarly case study of the response of mainstream media to the 60 Minutes II broadcast of the Rather story and the resulting Killian documents scandal, with a critical focus on the ethical principles applied by these various media organizations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mapes, Mary. Truth and Duty: The Press, the President, and the Privilege of Power. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2005. Mapes tells her side of the controversial story on the Killian documents and scandal and argues that true journalism is coming to an end.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rieder, Rem. “Breaking All the Rules: CBS’ Documents Fiasco Is a Textbook Case of How Not to Do Journalism.” American Journalism Review 27, no. 1 (February-March, 2005). A concise look at the effects of the Killian documents scandal on all those involved in the controversy.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Weisman, Alan. Lone Star: The Extraordinary Life and Times of Dan Rather. Hoboken, N.J.: John Wiley & Sons, 2006. Drawing on interviews from some of Dan Rather’s biggest fans and most vocal critics, Alan Weisman’s book explores the controversial image that Rather developed over his forty-plus years in news broadcasting.

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