Just when you thought the Anna Nicole Smith saga had finally gone away-boom! It jumps back into the tabloid headlines. In the past days, Howard K. Stern has filed a 60 million dollar lawsuit against reporter Rita Cosby and her publisher over her just-released book on Smith, "Blonde Ambition".
In the book, Cosby claims that Stern and former Smith boyfriend, Larry Birkhead (the father of Smith's baby daughter) had a sexual encounter, which was videotaped. The book further claimed that Smith liked to amuse herself by watching the video in bed. The sources for this claim, according to Cosby, were two nannies who worked for Smith in the Bahamas and had allegedly witnessed the video. This statement was provided to another source of Cosby's, and was the basis for her claim in the book. (Cosby had not personally interviewed the nannies.)
Now, in the wake of the lawsuit, it appears that Cosby is frantically looking for direct corroboration from the two nannies involved in the controversy. So she hotfoots it down to the Bahamas with an unidentified male companion and makes contact with an intermediary named Lincoln Bain, who puts her into contact with Elizabeth Thompson, the attorney for the nannies. Just one problem: Cosby is being audio-taped without her knowledge. This week, the tapes became public and were played on Greta Van Susteren's show on Fox News. In the conversations that were recorded, Cosby asks to be introduced to the two nannies and talks of payments to be made to them in the thousands of dollars for their trouble-not to be paid by Cosby, mind you-but by her companion. Throughout the conversations, Cosby is obviously speaking very carefully-like people do when they are afraid what they are saying may be repeated or recorded.
In addition, a former FBI Agent-in-Charge, Don Clark has also surfaced. His role is not clear at this point, though he has acknowledged (on TV of course) that he had spoken to the nannies and been told the same thing regarding the videotape. He denied, however, being Cosby's source for the claim in the book. (Clark is, in fact, acquainted with Cosby, which he acknowledges.)
So now, we get to be treated for the next year with more "sensational" revelations about Anna Nicole Smith, her circle of friends and their sordid life styles. Already, Clark, Bain, Thompson, Stern and his lawyer, hot-shot Atlanta attorney Lin Wood, have been making the rounds of talk shows from Greta to "Larry King on Life Support." Geraldo Rivera has also jumped in bringing in Clark, Thompson and Bain to appear on his show to accuse each other of being liars.
As of this writing, no videotape has surfaced.
Of course, all of the above is being reported on the cable networks and tabloids. What I would like to point out is the apparent similarity between this sorry episode and an earlier one from 2004-the so-called "Rathergate" affair over purported National Guard memos that surfaced just before the 2004 presidential election between George W Bush and John Kerry.
In that matter, Dan Rather and his CBS producer, Mary Mapes were conducting an investigation into Bush's service in the National Guard during the 1970s. It had been alleged for years that Bush got into the Guard through preferential treatment, and that his service was sub-standard, specifically, missing several monthly meetings and failing to take a physical that resulted in his flying status being lifted.
During the investigation, conducted primarily by Mapes, she was provided by documents supposedly from the National Guard in the early 1970s which concerned Bush's service in a negative light. The purveyor of these documents was a former Lt. Colonel named Bill Burkett, who, among other things, requested to be put in touch with Kerry's campaign. (Mapes herself contacted Kerry campaign manager Joe Lockhart regarding the documents, a clear violation of journalistic standards.) The documents in question, which were copies, were supposedly prepared by Bush's superior, Jerry Killian (now deceased).
Subsequent to obtaining the documents, Mapes and her associates had several document examiners look at them to ascertain their authenticity. Since they were not originals, no one could definitively state that they were authentic. Nevertheless, CBS ran with the story, which aired on 60 Minutes Wednesday on September 8.
Almost immediately, some conservative bloggers began questioning the reliability of the documents, questions that CBS dismissed as partisan right-wing blather. Yet, as bloggers and other media began looking into the documents, more red flags were raised. There were serious questions as to the font, type and format of the copies, which indicated that they were probably forgeries. More experts were called in by CBS to authenticate the documents, which they could not do. Eventually CBS backed away from the documents and the story. Rather and Mapes, however, stood by the documents and the accuracy of their story insisting that the documents were authentic. Finally, CBS apologized for its grievous error and appointed two independent investigators to examine the network's errors in running the story. Mapes and a few others were fired and Rather was forced into an early retirement, his credibility as a journalist and TV news anchor in ruins. One expert has concluded that the documents were produced on a computer using Times New Roman font. -not likely in the early 1970s. For Rather, a known liberal partisan, it was the culmination of a long career marked by occasional bizarre episodes.
Now Rather has just filed a 70 million dollar lawsuit against CBS charging that they made him a scapegoat in the whole affair. To this day, both he and Mapes stand by their story. As for the documents, they are now reduced to stating that no one has ever proved they were forged. It seems they have entirely missed the point-that is the burden rests on the investigative journalist to prove that the "evidence " is authentic-not the other way around.
Do you see a possible similarity here? In 2004, we had documents which appeared to have been forged and could not be corroborated. These were used by partisan media (Rather and CBS) to affect an up and coming election. It has been established that Mapes made contact with the Kerry campaign while the show was being prepared. In the case of Cosby (who has yet to be fully heard on this matter), it appears that she printed a second-hand statement as fact and is now trying to obtain first-hand corroboration-after her book has been published. As yet, no videotape has surfaced.
Finally, let me make a point. I don't know what the facts are in either case. In the Cosby matter, we have an ugly squabble over a matter that no one should be concerned about. In the Rather case, we have what was a rather obvious attempt to affect a presidential election. Maybe Bush did get into the Guard through political connections. Maybe he did miss meetings. Maybe he did fail to take a physical, and maybe his pilot status was taken away as a result. That doesn't justify using suspect evidence that may have been forged to make the case. In the Cosby matter, I don't know if there is such a videotape showing Stern and Birkhead having sex-nor do I care. I wish all these characters would just go away. What is important is that a book was written and published containing embarrassing details about two people based on second-hand statements allegedly from two other people who have yet to be heard from publicly about a videotape which has not yet been produced.
As I said, we have not yet heard Rita Cosby's full side of the story. This is yet to play out. However, I have a sneaking suspicion that Cosby may be a proud graduate from the Dan Rather School of Journalism. The lesson for the rest of us? Don't believe everything you read or hear from the News Media.