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Pyle: 'Witness for the Prosecution' trickery can work in politics

Published November 8, 2013 5:45 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

It's an old trick, but it just might work.

Barack Obama's political apparatus, so good at the nerdy pursuits of tracking likely voters and getting them to the polls in 2008 and 2012, didn't seem up to the bigger mind games involved in "Witness for the Prosecution" style media manipulation.

But suddenly the venerable CBS news program "60 Minutes" is in trouble again for apparently basing a sizzling exposé about a sitting administration on bogus information.

This time, the big story was the 2012 terrorist attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi. The one that killed four Americans. The one that was followed by a stream of White House and CIA talking points that did not accurately describe what really happened that horrific night.

The one that many Republicans, particularly Utah Rep. Jason Chaffetz, just will not stop talking about. To the exclusion of all of the other 157 attacks on U.S. diplomatic facilities over the last 15 years. In willful ignorance of the maxim honored by all intelligent generals and editors: "The first report from the battlefield is always wrong."

In recent days, that story has taken two quick turns. First, an American official who was in Libya that day did an interview on "60 Minutes," telling a story that made the whole situation look like the Obama administration was unprepared, unresponsive and untruthful. But very soon thereafter, that very official was credibly accused of being a fraud, of being at least as bad as the administration in offering conflicting versions of events and of misrepresenting himself and his knowledge.

By Friday, CBS was retracting the story and apologizing all over the place.

Sound familiar?

Nine years ago, "60 Minutes" aired a story about how then-President George W. Bush had, as a younger man, ditched service in Vietnam by joining the Texas Air Guard, then transferred to an Alabama unit where he seldom showed his face.

That story was based on some documents, presented by then-star anchor Dan Rather, as being proof of Bush's AWOL status. But it wasn't long before there were credible accusations that those documents were fake.

CBS not only withdrew the story, it fired the producer of the segment and forced Rather out after an illustrious career with the network. He's so much persona non grata around the Tiffany Network these days that he's not been invited to be part of the programs marking the 50th anniversary of the murder of John F. Kennedy, even though Rather was a huge part of the coverage of that historic event.

The really sad part is that those documents weren't necessary to tell the story. The Boston Globe had nailed it years before, based on better sources.

But floating something that looked like slam-dunk proof that Bush was guilty, then discrediting that something, is more effective in making people seem innocent than anything else. Even when they really are guilty.

I always thought that the real source of Rather's discredited story was Karl Rove, or someone in his circle who had watched Marlene Dietrich and Charles Laughton play the same game in "Witness for the Prosecution."

You make up testimony that really seems to convict the murder suspect all by itself. Then you expose that testimony as a fraud. Then the jury, and everyone else, doesn't believe any other evidence suggesting guilt.

Now, the best thing that could happen to embattled Utah Attorney General John Swallow would be to establish that there really is an innocent explanation for all those missing emails.

Removing the most damning piece of evidence against you doesn't make you innocent. But it does take the wind out of your accusers' sails real fast.

George Pyle, a Tribune editorial writer, can prove that he never painted a moustache on the original Mona Lisa. Thus, he is innocent of anything else he will ever be accused of.

gpyle@sltrib.com

Twitter: @debatestate