CBS Apologizes for Its Story on Bush Memos

Times Staff Writers

In an extraordinary admission, CBS News apologized Monday for using unverified documents about President Bush’s military service in a “60 Minutes” broadcast and said a key source on the story had lied to the network.

The embarrassing news -- which dominated television broadcasts and political websites throughout the day -- culminated in a “CBS Evening News” segment in which anchor Dan Rather confronted Bill Burkett, a former National Guard commander and longtime Bush critic who provided the material. Under Rather’s questioning, Burkett admitted he had misled a CBS producer about where he had obtained the photocopied documents, though he denied forging them.

As the segment ended, Rather added his own apology for CBS’ flawed reporting, which has quickly become an issue in the 2004 presidential election:

“I want to say personally and directly, I’m sorry.... This was an error made in good faith as we tried to carry the CBS News tradition of asking tough questions and investigative reporting. But it was a mistake.”

The network promised to appoint an independent panel of experts to investigate how the story was reported.


The memos were purportedly written by Bush’s immediate supervisor, the late Lt. Col. Jerry B. Killian, and were presented to show that Bush allegedly received preferential treatment in the Texas Air National Guard, and that Killian felt pressure from above to “sugarcoat” Bush’s performance in the early 1970s.

Monday’s admission was a galling mea culpa for CBS officials, who believed they had scored a journalistic coup when the Sept. 8 story aired. But as controversy erupted over the broadcast and the veracity of the memos, a story that initially seemed poised to cast a cloud over Bush instead created a giant black eye for a network that has long prided itself on excellence.

It was learned Monday that the CBS news producer working on the report helped put a senior advisor to John F. Kerry in touch with Burkett, saying he would be helpful to the campaign.

CBS officials hoped their apology and a subsequent probe would begin to quell the controversy. However, Republican critics found the apologies insufficient, and media observers questioned whether the news division’s wounds would heal quickly.

Ed Gillespie, chairman of the Republican National Committee, challenged the network to reveal who created the documents, who provided them to producer Mary Mapes and whether Kerry’s “supporters, party committee or campaign played any role.”

Burkett said in a recent Internet posting that he had approached the Kerry campaign, offering information on Bush’s Guard service, but had been rebuffed.

Joe Lockhart, a Kerry senior advisor, maintained that he and the campaign had nothing to do with the “60 Minutes” story.

But on Saturday, Sept. 4, Lockhart said he got a call from Mapes, a CBS producer who told him she was working on a piece about Bush’s National Guard service that would air the following Wednesday.

She said she had documents but would not tell Lockhart what was in them, Lockhart added.

He said he thought she was calling to get the campaign’s response to the story, but instead Mapes gave him Burkett’s name and cellphone number.

“She said there was someone helpful on the story who had been trying to reach the campaign and really wanted to talk to me,” Lockhart recalled. Mapes did not tell him that Burkett had been in the National Guard.

Lockhart said he put the number aside and forgot about it until the following Sunday night or Monday morning, when he called Burkett. He said they had “a short and inconsequential conversation” that lasted about three or four minutes.

“He basically wanted to talk to me because he said the Kerry campaign and the Democrats had not been tough enough in responding to the Swift boat attacks,” Lockhart said, referring to the group Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, which had been challenging Kerry’s military record and antiwar activities.

Burkett suggested that Kerry give a speech about his Vietnam service. “I listened, told him I appreciated his advice, and said goodbye,” Lockhart recalled.

Lockhart said he didn’t realize until recently that Burkett might be the source of the Guard memos. Asked about Mapes’ action, CBS spokeswoman Kelli Edwards said the matter was “an example of the kind of thing that the independent panel ... will look into. When that review is complete, we will comment.”

CBS said Mapes was not available for comment. She was still assigned to the documents story as of Monday afternoon.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan accepted CBS’ belated apology but added: “There are still serious questions that we believe need to be answered, and we think they should be fully investigated.”

The network initially defended its story and dismissed critics as partisan opponents. But during Monday’s on-air interview, Burkett conceded that he had misled CBS in saying that he got the documents from a National Guard official.

The network said it was still trying to identify the actual source. A CBS insider said Burkett told the network that he received the documents from an anonymous source at a hotel.

Asked why he misled the network about the source, Burkett, 54, told Rather: “Your staff pressured me to a point to reveal that source.... And I simply threw out a name that was basically, I guess, to take a little pressure off for a moment.”

In its Sept. 8 broadcast, CBS said the documents came from the personal files of Bush’s commander, Killian. But the papers came under immediate attack, with Internet-based critics saying the memos included typefaces and fonts that could not have been produced by electric typewriters at the time.

The story further unraveled a week later, when Rather interviewed Marion Carr Knox, 86, who had been Killian’s typist. She said the documents were not authentic, but -- in a twist -- noted that they reflected Killian’s view of Bush’s service.

According to the documents, Bush did not report for a required physical exam and failed to meet performance standards. The network furnished the White House with copies of the memos before the Sept. 8 broadcast.

Josh Howard, “60 Minutes Wednesday Edition” executive producer, told The Times last week that the network moved forward with its report when the White House did not question the documents’ authenticity.

In an interview Monday with The Times, the 72-year-old Rather took personal responsibility for the mistake, as “leader of the team,” but said it’s difficult to pinpoint blame or even discuss whether someone should lose his job.

“Given the number of people involved in this, directly involved in the news-gathering, vetting and approving, well, I just don’t know. There were a lot of people, including myself,” he said.

Rather, who has worked closely with Mapes for years, said he stood firmly behind the 48-year-old producer, calling her “a terrific reporter. Everybody makes mistakes, everybody hopes that their mistake will not be the only way that people define them and their work.”

In a sign of turbulence,, a conservative website, launched a campaign asking that CBS Washington correspondent Bob Schieffer be removed as a questioner in the Oct. 13 presidential debate.

The network responded that Schieffer “is one of the most experienced and respected journalists covering Washington D.C. ... and we are proud he was chosen by the [debate] committee,” according to CBS spokeswoman Sandra Genelius.

Observers said it was too early to tell if the “60 Minutes” broadcast would inflict more lasting damage to the network.

“The key will be if this incident leads to a fall-off in viewers, who are turned off by CBS’ mistakes,” said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania.

“If that happens, this becomes a corporate problem, and people who operate at that level will not have much patience for this.”

Advertisers could pose another problem, especially if they begin to abandon the network as a direct result of the “60 Minutes” broadcast, some experts suggested. Network spokesman Dana McClintock said Monday that no advertiser had pulled ads out of CBS’ news programs.

CBS News President Andrew Heyward, who said the network would announce members of the investigative panel this week, promised that its findings and recommendations would be made public. “If they can bring a truly credible investigation to the question and address what went wrong and why, I don’t think this will be an enormous problem,” said Richard Wald, former president of NBC News and executive vice president of ABC News. “But if they can’t do this, it will be a credibility problem that dogs them forever.”



Getting it wrong

Several major newspapers and broadcasters have dealt with journalism scandals, ethics lapses or misjudgments.


CBS reported on unauthenticated documents that purportedly revealed details of President Bush’s National Guard service in the early 1970s.

Outcome: CBS anchor Dan Rather apologized

on air. The network will conduct an independent investigation of the report, which will be made public.

USA Today

USA Today reporter Jack Kelley fabricated events and other material, as determined by some of the paper’s editors and reporters this year.

Outcome: An independent panel of veteran newspaper executives evaluated problems in the newsroom and published their findings. Editor Karen Jurgensen, Managing Editor Hal Ritter and Executive Editor Brian Gallagher resigned.

New York Times

In May 2003, New York Times reporter Jayson Blair was discovered to have fabricated or plagiarized at least half of the articles he wrote for the Times between 2000 and 2003.

Outcome: The Times published a 7,500-word article detailing Blair’s deception, and Executive Editor Howell Raines and Managing Editor Gerald Boyd resigned.

Los Angeles Times

In October 1999, Los Angeles Times Publisher Kathryn Downing agreed to share profits from a Times magazine about Staples Center with the new arena.

Outcome: About 300 reporters and editors circulated a petition demanding an apology from Downing. The paper created and published a set of ethics guidelines. It also published a staff report of the scandal. The following year, Downing and Editor Michael Parks were replaced by John Puerner and John Carroll after Tribune Co. purchased The Times.

CNN and Time magazine

CNN and Time magazine retracted a story reported in 1998 on a joint program, “NewsStand,” that alleged the U.S. military used nerve gas on Vietnam War defectors during “Operation Tailwind” in Laos.

Outcome: CNN and Time hired a 1st Amendment lawyer to vet the reporting; the report concluded that the story could not be supported. Several producers connected with the story were fired or resigned.

Boston Globe

Columnist Patricia Smith fabricated people and quotes in several columns, and columnist Mike Barnicle lifted jokes from comedian George Carlin.

Outcome: Smith resigned. Barnicle, after a battle with Globe managers, eventually resigned.


NBC’s “Dateline” admitted to rigging a crash demonstration of a General Motors pickup truck to explode as part of a 1992 report on the truck’s safety.

Outcome: Anchors Jane Pauley and Stone Phillips apologized on air.

Washington Post

Washington Post reporter Janet Cooke won the Pulitzer Prize for a 1981 story on a fictional 8-year-old heroin addict. The Post backed Cooke’s story even after Washington police tried unsuccessfully to locate him, but editors eventually discovered Cooke’s deception after the Pulitzer was awarded.

Outcome: The Post ombudsman wrote an 18,000-word report on the scandal. Cooke returned the award soon after she won and quickly resigned.

Source: Times research


Times staff writers Scott Collins and Meg James contributed to this report.