In the Rush for a Scoop, CBS Found Trouble Fast
It was 11 a.m. on Sept. 8 -- nine hours before “60 Minutes” was to air. But as news executives debated whether to broadcast a story on newly obtained paperwork offering fresh evidence about President Bush’s National Guard service, a big question hung over CBS News’ Westside headquarters: Were the photocopied documents real or fake?
Suddenly, the answer seemed to materialize, and from an unlikely source -- the White House itself.
John Roberts, the network’s White House correspondent, called to report he’d just completed an on-camera interview with Dan Bartlett, the White House communications director. Bartlett, it appeared, had no quarrel with the authenticity of the documents.
That was the turning point.
“If we had gotten back from the White House any kind of red flag, raised eyebrow, anything that said, ‘Are you sure about this stuff?’ we would have gone back to square one,” Josh Howard, the program’s executive producer, told the Los Angeles Times in an interview Friday. “The White House said they were authentic, and that carried a lot of weight with us.”
The story aired that night, and Dan Rather, the CBS News anchor, seemed to have scored yet another coup in his broadcasting career. Hours later, the roof fell in.
Critics, many of them Internet-based, immediately charged that CBS had relied on phony documents from a shadowy, unnamed source. Rather, 72, long a target for conservative critics, was again fending off allegations of liberal bias. A growing chorus of media observers voiced distress that CBS had hurried a story onto the air without fully checking the facts.
And Friday evening, the White House denied that it ever confirmed the documents as authentic. “For them to suggest that [the interview was] an endorsement or ratification of the documents is a terrible stretch of reality,” Bartlett said in an interview.
He also disclosed that he had shown the documents that morning to President Bush. “He had no recollection of these specific documents,” Bartlett said, though the president said some of the information seemed accurate. For instance, he did go to Alabama. But he denied having defied orders from his superiors, Bartlett said.
The network said Friday that it had assembled a 12-person team that continued to report the story. But Howard and others stand behind it -- even if the documents used to support the story are shown to be fake.
The questions about Bush’s military service as raised by the memos have long been the subject of speculation. They received new life with the CBS broadcast, which also alleged that Bush was helped to the front of the line to get into the Guard.
The “60 Minutes” broadcast used the documents to assert that Bush’s squadron commander in the Texas Air National Guard grounded him from flying after he missed a medical examination and failed to meet performance standards. The four memos, allegedly from the personal files of the late Lt. Col. Jerry B. Killian, also suggested that Bush received favored treatment.
As criticism of the broadcast mounted, Rather defended the documents’ authenticity in an unusual “CBS Evening News” broadcast two days later. But sources continued to come forward, shedding doubt on both the documents and how the network vetted them. On Sept. 15, one week after the original broadcast, “60 Minutes” aired an interview with one of the most persuasive critics, Marion Carr Knox, 86, who was Killian’s typist at the time. She said the memos were fake, but added that she believed the content was essentially accurate.
“You never want to be accused of getting a story wrong, but we are human,” Howard said Friday. “We have a terrific team.... However, we can get something wrong. My interest is in getting it right, if not the first time, then at least the second time.”
In the crucial interview with the White House communications director, Howard noted that Roberts had specifically asked if the documents were fake. Bartlett’s answer was: “I’m not saying that at all. I’m just saying that the fact that documents like this are being raised when, in fact, all they do is reaffirm what we’ve said all along, is questionable.”
The network’s new reporting will be wrapped up soon, perhaps this weekend or early next week, Howard said. More sources have come forward in recent days, and CBS is leaning on its original sources to see if they will go on the record, he added.
A behind-the-scenes look at how CBS raced to make a Sept. 8 broadcast deadline offers a cautionary tale of television news in an age of mounting competitive pressures. Although many news organizations were pursuing a definitive breakthrough on the National Guard story, CBS appeared to have the competition beat -- until its scoop became a public relations disaster.
Many observers believe Rather and CBS will survive the storm -- but only if they make a quick admission of guilt, assuming the documents are fraudulent. The anchor has complained that the furor over the documents has distracted attention from the truth of the story about Bush. Yet critics don’t buy that argument.
“The fact is CBS used those documents as the smoking gun,” said Alex Jones, head of the Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University. “I don’t believe Dan set out to mislead anybody, but he’s got to stand up and take a bullet. His credibility and that of CBS are very much on the line.”
A Look Behind Scenes
The news business is built on trust, and there was no reason for “60 Minutes” not to trust Mary Mapes, 48, who lives in Dallas. She is universally well regarded by her colleagues, with a number of big stories to her credit.
Most notably, she was the producer on Rather’s major scoop earlier this year making public pictures of U.S. soldiers degrading and humiliating prisoners in Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison. CBS went through a similar vetting process to make sure that those pictures were authentic, CBS executives said.
Mapes could not be reached for this story.
Although CBS News notes that Mapes had been chasing the National Guard story for five years, it only came back on the active burner in mid- to late August.
That’s when executive producer Howard got a call from her, telling him “she was on to something” and wanted to put her other projects aside.
Over the next couple of weeks, he said, “she would call from time to time, telling me she was getting closer, not closer, something that she was looking up that was a blind alley -- those kinds of things that reporters do when tracking a story. There was nothing definitive” until he got the call from her on Sept. 3, Howard recalled.
On that Friday, just before the Labor Day weekend, Mapes excitedly phoned her bosses from Texas to report a breakthrough in the document quest. “I’ve got them,” she told Howard.
As excitement spread through CBS offices on West 57th Street, there was a rush to get the pieces in place.
On Sept. 5, Rather hopped a charter flight to Texas from Florida, where he’d been covering Hurricane Frances, to meet Mapes and to interview Robert Strong, a witness who helped confirm the story. Strong had run the Texas Air National Guard administrative office in the Vietnam era and was a friend of Bush’s squadron commander, Killian.
Vacationing executives were looped in by phone on their various Labor Day getaways. Mapes spent the long weekend lining up experts to authenticate the papers and setting up interviews.
Mapes also set up the interview with Ben Barnes, who said that, as speaker of the Texas House of Representatives, he had intervened to make sure Bush was inducted into the National Guard.
Barnes flew to New York to be interviewed by Rather on Sept. 7, the same day that senior CBS News executives got back from the holiday and got their first look at the documents. Throughout the day, Howard said, there were numerous meetings in CBS’ offices to discuss the documents’ significance.
They had consulted outside experts to help them check the papers, and several confirmed their accuracy.
Marcel B. Matley, a handwriting expert from San Francisco, signed a letter this week saying he found “nothing about the documents that could disprove their authenticity.” And James J. Pierce, a forensic examiner from Newport Beach, also signed a letter vouching for the signatures and typeface in the documents.
But others said they had voiced strong warnings to the network.
Emily Will, a professional document examiner in North Carolina consulted by the network to help assess two memos related to Bush’s military service, said her copies showed a fax footer with a time stamp that read 6:41 p.m. Sept. 2.
The header of the fax, which presumably showed information about the sender, referred to a Kinko’s shop near Abilene, Texas.
Will and another document examiner, Linda James of Plano, Texas, said they were first contacted by CBS News on Sept. 3.
“They said they had some documents, some sensitive documents, and would I mind working over the Labor Day weekend,” Will said in an interview. “They wanted to know whether the signatures were genuine and the documents were genuine.”
Will said she found “serious problems” with the documents. She isolated five ways in which the Killian signature on a 1973 memo did not match up with the other provided samples of his handwriting. She also wondered whether the memos contained superscripts and proportional spacing that existed in 1972 and ’73, although she emphasized that her expertise mainly concerned handwriting and signatures and not the finer points of typography.
On Sept. 5, Will sent notations on the memos to CBS via e-mail and also voiced her concerns to a producer over the phone. The producer said they had more material to send her, but Will said those additional documents never arrived.
Meanwhile, James told producers she was troubled that she was looking at only copies and not originals. “[I] described what I needed in order to go ahead with the examination,” James said. CBS promised it would send more paperwork, but according to James it never arrived.
“We knew it was a rush job. They wanted to air [the story] by Wednesday night,” James said.
When time passed and Will heard nothing, she called CBS News the night of Sept. 7. She said she told her contact -- whom she declined to name -- “If you run this story, you’ll get all sorts of questions from hundreds of document examiners.” Will declined to say what if any reply CBS gave to her warning.
By the night of Sept. 7, CBS was promoting the next day’s interview with Barnes and reporters from other news organizations were calling to see if they could get an advance look at what CBS was rumored to have, previously undisclosed documents.
But Howard said, “We weren’t comfortable with that. We were keeping this to ourselves until we were certain.” He explained that CBS still hadn’t decided whether it would use the documents because they hadn’t been authenticated to its satisfaction.
Then the morning of Sept. 8 -- as producers and executives including CBS News Senior Vice President Betsy West were meeting -- the call came in from the network’s White House correspondent.
“John Roberts said he had just finished the interview with Bartlett, and [Bartlett] had no quarrel with the authenticity of the documents,” Howard recalled. “And in fact, in several places in the interview he used the documents to support the White House position that Bush did what he needed to do with regards to his National Guard service.”
The mood at CBS was upbeat that evening when the story aired. But less than four hours later, a mysterious blogger named “Buckhead” was the first to challenge the National Guard documents. Later identified as Harry W. MacDougald, an Atlanta lawyer with close ties to conservative Republican causes, he claimed the materials were forgeries and said “this should be pursued aggressively.”
The unraveling had begun.
Getlin and Jensen reported from New York, and Collins from Los Angeles.