In CBS memos coverage, media ignored -- or even denied -- credible evidence that Bush failed to fulfill National Guard duty

The media is allowing conservatives to use the release of the Independent Review Panel report examining CBS News' 60 Minutes Wednesday's September 8 broadcast of questionable memos to claim that the report disposed of all remaining questions that have been raised about President Bush's service in the National Guard. In fact, substantial evidence exists, completely independent of the CBS memos, that strongly suggests that Bush did not fulfill his Guard obligations and did receive special treatment as the son of a prominent politician -- evidence that Bush has never directly refuted.

On January 10, CNN host and nationally syndicated columnist Robert Novak and author and columnist Bob Kohn both falsely suggested that questions about Bush's service rested solely on the flawed 60 Minutes report. January 11 reports in The Washington Post and The Boston Globe relayed erroneous claims by Bush administration officials and other Republicans that the panel report vindicates Bush's assertion that he fulfilled his service and received no preferential treatment, without detailing the vast body of evidence that is completely unrelated to the memos and has not been contradicted or substantively disputed.

Appearing on the January 10 edition of MSNBC's The Abrams Report, Kohn reacted to CBS anchor Dan Rather's September 15 remark that nobody has questioned the “major thrust of our report” by asserting that “There's no story without the documents. ... it's just conjecture without the documents.” Earlier that day on CNN's Crossfire, Novak asked why CBS has failed to issue a “formal retraction of George W. Bush ducking National Guard service.”

In a January 11 article, The Washington Post reported that conservatives asserted that the panel's findings “would convince Americans that Bush had served honorably during the Vietnam War and received no special treatment,” but failed to mention that the panelists explicitly stated (as noted below) that they were not addressing the issue of Bush's service -- not the strength of the evidence against him, nor the credibility of his response. Instead, the Post quoted a remark that made no reference to the panel's findings -- Republican National Committee chairman Ed Gillespie's claim that "[t]he public has made their judgment: They know the president served and was honorably discharged." (Media Matters has previously noted the media falling for the irrelevant Republican talking point that Bush's honorable discharge means he fulfilled his duties.) The Post noted that “credible reporting by other media outlets [besides CBS] has raised questions about whether Bush received favorable treatment in the Texas Air National Guard,” but neglected to provide any details or to note that Bush has made untrue assertions about his service in the Guard, and has made little effort to address any of those questions. Instead, the Post simply quoted former Kerry-Edwards '04 campaign adviser Joe Lockhart, who said: “I don't think we're certain the president fully fulfilled his National Guard service.”

Similarly, a January 11 Boston Globe report stated that "[t]he White House has said that Bush fulfilled all his obligations to the National Guard and was honorably discharged," but failed to examine the veracity of that statement.

Appearing on the January 10 edition of CNN's Paula Zahn Now, former Attorney General Dick Thornburgh and retired Associated Press president and chief executive officer Louis D. Boccardi -- the two men behind the independent panel that reviewed 60 Minutes' broadcast -- explained that their report spoke to the issue of CBS' journalistic conduct, not to whether Bush fulfilled his National Guard duty:

ZAHN: Do you have any doubt that this report was false? That the allegations were untrue?

THORNBURGH: I think our bottom-line verdict on this program was that it was not substantiated by the facts that were developed during the course of its production, or in the aftermath of the showing on September 8th.

ZAHN: So is it fair to say, after this long, exhaustive investigation, that everybody agreed that the vetting process was flawed, but you can't tell America tonight that the story was absolutely false?

THORNBURGH: We'd be telling them more than we knew. I think our charge from CBS was to investigate the process by which this was produced, and the process by which this segment was defended, and determine whether it was flawed or not. We determined that it was flawed, and we set forth chapter and verse as to why we came to that conclusion. We can't make the same mistake that was made in the initial broadcast by coming to conclusions for which we have no definitive proof.

BOCCARDI: We can tell America, though, that this story should not have been put on the air.


As the Independent Review Panel documented, the following four disputed documents were presented in the 60 Minutes Wednesday broadcast:

  • A memorandum dated May 4, 1972, in which then-Lieutenant Colonel Jerry B. Killian ordered then-Lieutenant Bush to take his annual flying physical;
  • A file memorandum dated May 19, 1972, in which Killian discussed a conversation with Bush about a transfer from Texas to Alabama to work on a political campaign, as well as Killian's displeasure with the requested transfer;
  • A memorandum dated August 1, 1972, in which Killian stated that he ordered Bush suspended from flight status due to his failure to meet Texas Air National Guard standards and his failure to take his required flying physical; and
  • A file memorandum dated August 18, 1973, in which Killian stated that a retired Texas Air National Guard general was putting pressure on various officers to “sugar coat” Bush's officer evaluation.

But as Media Matters for America has documented, evidence pertaining to Bush's preferential treatment and suspension remains, regardless of the authenticity of the memos. For example, former Texas Speaker of the House Ben Barnes swore under oath that he helped Bush get into the Guard, and Bush's Harvard Business School professor Yoshi Tsurumi said that Bush “admitted to me that to avoid the Vietnam draft, he had his dad -- he said 'dad's friends' -- skip him through the long waiting list to get into the Texas National Guard.” Neither statement has anything to do with the CBS documents. Further, aside from the memo presented by CBS, a separate, unchallenged document clearly states that Bush was suspended from flying because he missed his physical.

Media Matters has extensively documented the substantial and uncontested evidence that Bush didn't show up for duty when he was supposed to, that he skipped a required physical for as-yet-unexplained reasons, that he was grounded from flying, and that he mysteriously received an honorable discharge anyway. In many ways, the media's coverage of the independent panel report resembles the coverage when news of the CBS scandal first broke. As Media Matters noted at that time, the media's focus on the memos enabled conservatives to dodge questions raised by the strong evidence indicating that strings were pulled on Bush's behalf in the National Guard; that he did not meet his service obligations; and, most importantly, that he has repeatedly lied about his service.