NOT THE FIRST TIME. Okay, I stand corrected on my "What is the frequency, Kenneth?" crack about Dan Rather yesterday. Today, though, I want to share something I stumbled across recently while doing some research for the media-law class I teach at Northeastern University.
You might think that basing a high-profile investigative report on phony documents would be a once-in-a-career event - mainly because afterwards you wouldn't have a career to go back to. But it turns out that the fiasco over George W. Bush's National Guard documents was not the first time Dan Rather had treaded into such troubled waters.
I quote from an article in the March 1989 issue of the Quill that was written by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Clark F. Mollenhoff and William Swislow. The article was a harsh critique of Times v. Sullivan, the landmark 1964 Supreme Court decision that, the authors argued, was a license for media irresponsibility. The Quill is published by the Society of Professional Journalists. If you're not familiar with the case, you may want to sit down for this:
The case of Dr. Carl A. Galloway against CBS, which the doctor lost, represents one of the worst cases of a miscarriage of justice under Sullivan's permissiveness. (And it should be noted here that I [Note: I'm not sure whether "I" refers to Mollenhoff or Swislow] testified as an expert witness in the case on Galloway's behalf.)
In a 60 Minutes program in December 1979, Galloway, a private Los Angeles medical doctor, was portrayed as a dishonest physician who had signed a false medical report on an insurance claim. Such an act would have been a violation of California law and a serious violation of medical ethics.
In fact, Galloway's name had been forged on the medical report that CBS displayed in the 60 Minutes program. Neither CBS correspondent Dan Rather nor the producer had reached the doctor in the several months the program was in production. The signature wasn't verified by a handwriting expert before the show was aired, and no attempt was made to reach Galloway with a registered letter or similar means. Galloway's effort to obtain a correction was rejected by CBS officials, although his demand for a retraction included signed affidavits by workers at the clinic saying that Galloway had not been involved with the false report.
He then sued.
CBS discharged its original law firm in the case after a representative of the firm told the judge in a pretrial session that its handwriting expert had concluded that Galloway's signature had been forged.
Logic would suggest that Galloway had won the crucial point about the falsity of a program that had stated flatly he had signed the false report.
But CBS officials continued to stand by the broadcast.
Galloway testified that he never received any report that CBS or Rather were trying to contact him, although other testimony said Rather and the story's producer had both left messages at Galloway's own office. Galloway also admitted during testimony that he learned the day of the Rather visit that 60 Minutes had been at the clinic.
Galloway said he had left the clinic more than a month before the 60 Minutes report and that his only connection with the clinic had been to conduct routine physical examinations one afternoon a week over a period of several months. He testified that he had never filed a false medical report and was unaware of any false medical reports being filed at the clinic.
Rather defended his failure to contact Galloway and to document his efforts, explaining that he saw several pieces of Galloway's stationery at the clinic and that he considered the failure to return his calls to be an admission of guilt. On the witness stand, Rather said he believed that Galloway had signed the false report at the time the program aired, and that he still believed it in the face of the doctor's denials and the statements of handwriting experts.
Despite the fact that Galloway was a private physician, the trial judge gave the jury the New York Times v. Sullivan instruction. If Dan Rather believed the false medical report carried Dr. Galloway's signature, it was required to return a verdict for CBS, the judge instructed. The jury found for CBS.
CBS lawyers and executives declared another victory for truth. It was in fact another victory for press permissiveness.
Galloway's suit was later the inspiration for a movie called Reckless Disregard.
Rather has done a lot of good work over the years, and the notion that he was driven by liberal bias is ridiculous. Still, I find it amazing that the lapse that finally did him in (Rather's denials to the contrary) was almost identical to one that took place much earlier in his career.