CBS television officials struggled Tuesday with revelations that the network’s news programs not only failed to report thoroughly on memos involving President Bush’s Vietnam-era military service, but then committed an apparent ethical lapse by helping a top advisor to Sen. John F. Kerry contact a source for that controversial report.
Several journalism analysts said CBS News producer Mary Mapes’ phone call to Kerry senior advisor Joe Lockhart amounts to at least a potential conflict of interest -- giving the appearance that the network had assisted a candidate in the presidential race.
The two political camps jumped on the newest information Tuesday. Republicans said it provided evidence of collusion between CBS and Kerry’s campaign in an effort to “smear” Bush’s record in the Texas Air National Guard. Democrats called the entire contretemps a “smokescreen” that had distracted the public from reports that Bush failed to meet his full, six-year military obligation.
CBS News is expected today to announce an independent panel to review actions by the “CBS Evening News” and “60 Minutes” teams that produced the Sept. 8 report on Bush’s Guard service. It would include at least one expert in journalism and another in law, people familiar with the situation said.
In an indication of how deep concern about the issue has become at the network, Chairman Leslie Moonves commented for the first time Tuesday. He said that while CBS News “has a long tradition of responsible journalism ... it’s clear that something went seriously wrong with the process” in the production of the National Guard story.
Moonves, who attended the New York premiere for “CSI:NY” on Tuesday night, declined further comment.
Stories about whether Bush met his service obligation after graduating from Yale University in 1968 have been overwhelmed for the past two weeks by the controversy over the CBS story.
The “Evening News” and “60 Minutes” presented an interview with a former Texas state official -- a Democrat and supporter of Kerry -- who said he helped Bush secure a coveted spot in the Air National Guard that kept the then-congressman’s son out of combat.
The programs also showed four memos purportedly written by Bush’s commanding officer, complaining that the young lieutenant failed to take a physical and then might have benefited from superiors who wanted to “sugarcoat” his subpar performance.
The memos immediately became the center of a tempest, with documents experts arguing over their authenticity and CBS refusing to disclose their source. As doubts increased, CBS on Monday identified a disgruntled former Guard officer and longtime Bush critic, Bill Burkett, as the person who provided the memos.
The network’s missteps were compounded, in the eyes of many media analysts, when it was revealed that Mapes had agreed to a request from Burkett to pass his name along to one of Kerry’s top aides, Lockhart.
“There’s clearly a conflict of interest when [Mapes] plays both the role of the journalist and the role of an intermediary between a source and somebody in a political campaign,” said Bob Steele, a professor of journalism ethics at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Fla.
“CBS is already in an extremely difficult position to explain and justify their journalistic modus operandi, and now they have an increasingly complicated challenge of explaining a further breach of professionalism and ethical standards.”
Jay Rosen, chairman of the journalism department at New York University, called the new twist “part of the curious, sometimes inexplicable, decision-making that appears to have gone on.”
Mapes is considered one of CBS News’ top producers. She helped the network divulge reports that American military guards and interrogators abused prisoners at the Abu Gharib prison in Iraq. She has not commented since problems with the documents surfaced, with her colleagues at CBS saying repeatedly she is unavailable.
CBS News acknowledged the questionable contact with the Kerry campaign in a statement: “It is obviously against CBS news standards and those of every other reputable news organization to be associated with any political agenda.”
The news division said it would refer the issue to the independent panel.
Inside CBS News, the Mapes-Lockhart conversation was met Tuesday with growing anger and frustration.
The latest revelation -- a news producer putting a source in touch with the Democratic campaign -- had some worrying whether CBS News’ reputation would be damaged by the actions of a few people.
Poynter’s Steele said that if Mapes did indeed make the call to Kerry’s advisor, “it seems to me that her multiple missteps would require her stepping off the story at least until the independent review is completed.”
CBS has not taken disciplinary action against Mapes. Some insiders noted that CBS needed her help in reconstructing how the story was produced.
Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie said Tuesday that the revelations about the contact between Mapes and the Democrats and Burkett “raised questions” about the Kerry campaign’s complicity in “character assassination” against Bush.
There is “all this skulduggery based on what are clearly now discredited documents and they continue to level these charges, continue to try to smear the president,” Gillespie said.
Lockhart said in an interview Tuesday that Mapes did not urge him to call Burkett, but rather had passed along his phone number.
“She said this guy had been helpful, he wanted to be helpful, call him if you can,” Lockhart said Tuesday. “I took the message that this was something that she wanted me to do, but she was not urging me to do it. I assumed the guy just really wanted to talk to me.”
Lockhart said their short conversation was limited to a discussion about the debate over Vietnam and Burkett’s belief that Kerry needed to be tougher. Lockhart said he knew that CBS had documents about Bush’s military duty and that it was a “possibility” Burkett was the source.
In Texas, two of Burkett’s lawyers Tuesday sought to explain his deception to CBS about the origin of the memos. They suggested that the former Guard officer was a victim, who bent the truth slightly to get the documents out, but who believed in the underlying facts in the documents.
But USA Today, which also obtained copies of the memo from Burkett, reported that the former Guard officer had demonstrated increasingly uneven behavior, even collapsing in a convulsion during one interview with the newspaper.
Burkett’s lawyers, David Van Os and Gabe Quintanilla, on Tuesday completed the story of how their client obtained the memos.
They gave this account: Burkett received a phone call in March from a former Guard employee named Lucy Ramirez, who said she had heard Burkett’s allegations against Bush and had the documents that could help prove them.
The two then arranged a document drop at a Houston livestock show, with Burkett actually quickly receiving the copies, in a manila envelope, from a man he did not know. He copied the papers and stored them in a meat locker, burning the originals to prevent anyone from tracing them back to Ramirez.
The Times could not locate Ramirez, identify the mysterious man who purportedly passed the memos, or verify any of the other details of that account.
Jensen reported from New York, Rainey from Los Angeles. Times staff writers Scott Gold and Matea Gold contributed to this report.