Skip to comments.Remembering Rather's red smear [note: Ft. Detrick, MD]
Posted on 07/06/2002 9:46:43 AM PDT by First_Salute
The expose and apologies by CNN and Time Magazine for disseminating the smear-story of the American military in Southeast Asia raise another question, one which has received far too little attention among media ethicists:
What is the responsibility of an editor when a reporter submits an expose story for publication without having confirmed the allegation made in that story?
Specifically: On March 30,1987, Dan Rather's lead story on CBS was a shocker. He reported a Soviet statement accusing the United States of having started the AIDS epidemic with a gene-splicing experiment in a Pentagon laboratory at Fort Detrick, Maryland. Obviously neither Mr. Rather nor his staff had asked the Pentagon for a comment to go with the Soviet allegation because there was no mention of a denial or affirmation or "no comment" by the Pentagon.
Now there is no question that Mr. Rather quoted the Soviet statement correctly. In fact five years later, a onetime KGB executive, Evgeny Primakov, presently Russia's foreign minister, admitted that the KGB had planted the AIDS smear which CBS had reported. Let me quote the source for my statement: Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Daily Report #56, March 20,1992, page 3:
"KGB admits AIDS scare story. During a recruiting lecture for the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service, Evgenii Primakov admitted that the KGB planted fake news stories blaming the spread of AIDS on a U.S. military experiment. His statement was quoted in Izvestiya, as reported by Reuter on 18 March. Primakov said that the story, which was widely propagated in the Third World, was designed to expose the 'perfidious' work of U.S. military scientists. According to Primakov, U.S. intelligence agencies retaliated by leaking so-called 'evidence' of KGB complicity in the assassina-tion attempt against Pope John Paul II."
I first reported Mr. Rather's broadcast of the KGB "Big Lie" in my Washington Times Commentary column May 5,1987. I have referred to this CBS calumny several times since, mentioning Mr. Rather as the journalist who peddled that story. So far as I know CBS had never replied, explained, apologized, denied. Silence.
Now there's a reaI question here of journalistic ethics. CBS could claim an extenuating circumstance: all Mr. Rather was doing was quoting a Soviet report which first appeared in the Soviet magazine, "Literary Gazette," was then reprinted in a Soviet military magazine which TASS, the Soviet news agency, then circulated worldwide.
In face of such an appalling accusation against the U.S. by a sworn enemy, the Soviet Union, shouldn't CBS journalists have investigated the matter or at the very least have asked the Pentagon for an explanation and to have done so before they rushed to judgment?
After all, the Soviet Union had a long record of lying. Or, as Robert Conquest has pointed out, Marxism-Leninism "had as one of its main characteristics falsification on an enormous scale"
Was Walter Duranty, the New York Times Moscow correspondent during Stalin's genocidal war against the Ukrainian peasantry, doing nothing wrong when he reported Soviet denials of starvation and megadeaths. Should Herbert L. Matthews, the New York Times correspondent whose reports on Fidel Castro helped propel the young Cuban revolutionary into power, have carefully analyzed Fidel's past and present before presenting him to the world as "le chevalier pure et sans reproche"?
I do not say that CBS should have spiked the KGB story on the U.S. and AIDS. By all means it should have been used but only after CBS had checked, first, was there any truth to the story; second, if the story were doubtful, what relationship was there between the Soviet story and the provable existence of "active measures," the KGB disinformation campaign against the U.S. and, third, how did such a propaganda smear square with the "glasnost" policies of Mikhail Gorbachev, then in power for two years? Three important questions to answer-but CBS and Dan Rather failed to ask them.
Two years after CBS broadcast the AIDS smear expose, Mr. Gorbachev was writing in his book, "Perestroika: New Thinking for Our Country":
"We certainly do not need an 'enemy image' of America, neither for domestic nor for foreign policy interests."
But the KGB smear campaign against the United States continued. And by its own disregard of journalistic ethics, CBS and Dan Rather helped that KGB smear campaign to continue.
Arnold Beichrnan, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, is columnist for The Washington Times.
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