CBS News dismissed four staffers and appointed a new standards executive Monday after an independent panel issued an exhaustive and highly critical report on how questionable documents -- and a frenzied rush to trump competitors -- led the network to air a high-stakes story about President Bush’s military service that turned into a journalistic and political debacle.
Now the venerable news division, home of pioneering broadcaster Edward R. Murrow and for years the crown jewel of the “Tiffany Network,” must repair the damage as it seeks to restore its credibility under difficult circumstances: Its prime-time newscast ranks third among the big three networks. It remains beset by conservative critics who say the organization is driven by liberal bias.
And although he was not among those forced out, anchor Dan Rather, who presented the controversial “60 Minutes Wednesday” piece, retires in March, leaving the network in the hunt for a successor to be its new public face.
Aired on Sept. 8 in the midst of a tight presidential race, the segment raised serious allegations about Bush’s service in the Texas Air National Guard.
The 224-page report, scathing in its summation, said CBS’ handling of the story was flawed at almost every turn -- in the reporting that began in haste in late August, the internal process for reviewing the authenticity of documents, and even afterward, when questions were raised by Web loggers and journalists.
CBS News’ problems with the story, the panel said, were the result of “a myopic zeal” to be first with the story, causing the network to fall short of its own core principles of accuracy and fairness. Although the report did not find evidence of political bias, it sharply criticized a producer for contacting the John F. Kerry campaign before the segment aired.
The panel, led by former Atty. Gen. Richard L. Thornburgh and former Associated Press executive Louis D. Boccardi, lambasted the network for “considerable and fundamental deficiencies” in preparing and later defending the story.
The story, titled “For the Record,” alleged that Bush had received favorable treatment during his service during the Vietnam War era.
The story offered as evidence four documents allegedly written by Bush’s late former commanding officer, Lt. Col. Jerry B. Killian, in 1972 and 1973. One of the documents stated that a retired Air National Guard general had put pressure on officers to “sugarcoat” Bush’s evaluation; another indicated Killian recommended that Bush’s flight status be suspended for failing to meet National Guard standards and not taking a required physical. All of the documents were said to be photocopies from Killian’s personal files and were not part of the military’s official records.
In the end, the panel was not able to determine whether the documents were authentic.
Even after serious questions had been raised about the story, the panel found, CBS News offered a “strident defense” of the story without fully investigating potential problems.
The news division also allowed many employees who worked on the original story to work on subsequent pieces defending it, the panel found. And the network issued inaccurate news releases that, among other things, declared that the source of the documents was “unimpeachable,” the panel said, and that experts had deemed them authentic.
The panel said some CBS staffers called the events leading up to the story’s airing a “perfect storm” in which multiple factors led to an overall failure of institutional safeguards. Among them: Executive Producer Josh Howard had just taken over as chief of “60 Minutes Wednesday,” other producers deferred to Rather and his producer Mary Mapes, and a “zealous belief in the truth of the segment” that may have “led many to disregard some fundamental journalistic principles.”
The panel also said that Mapes might have created the appearance of political bias by agreeing to put Burkett in touch with Joe Lockhart, a senior aide to Sen. Kerry, the Democratic presidential candidate. But the report said the mistakes made in preparing the “60 Minutes” report were due more to competitive haste than any political agenda.
“There’s no proof of any political bias” involved in preparing the “60 Minutes” story, Thornburgh said in a conference call with reporters.
The network terminated Mapes, the once-acclaimed producer who prepared the report.
Howard and a top deputy, Mary Murphy, will also lose their jobs, as will Betsy West, CBS News’ senior vice president of prime time. West was the highest-ranking news executive to be disciplined in the matter. CBS also appointed a longtime news executive, Linda Mason, as a standards czar to help vet investigative stories in the future.
Though Rather was not fired for his role in the broadcast, CBS chief Leslie Moonves faulted him for “overzealously” defending the report after it was attacked by bloggers and other commentators. Rather had announced that he would retire in March after 24 years behind the anchor’s desk.
“We feel that Dan has announced already that he’s leaving the [anchor] chair shortly,” Moonves said in an interview. “And he will remain with ’60 Minutes.’ We feel that Dan did his job.”
Also spared the ax was Rather’s boss, CBS News President Andrew Heyward, who, the independent panel and Moonves said, had conscientiously attempted to verify the report before broadcast.
Many observers were struck by the harshness of the panel’s report. Although CBS commissioned the report, the panel said its conclusions were reached independently and the network had no control over the content of the report.
“It’s the sharpest criticism any news organization has ever been subjected to in public,” said Marvin Kalb, a former CBS correspondent and senior fellow at Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy.
Still, the panel’s report seems unlikely to be the last word on the scandal. Even Rather’s role in the controversy may not be entirely resolved. The panel’s report said that despite his delivery last fall of a widely reported apology for the story, the anchor did not “fully agree” with CBS’ decision to stop defending the Bush piece and “still believes that the content of the documents is accurate.”
Through a representative, Rather declined to comment. “We can’t possibly issue a statement today, because we have to read” the report, said Kim Akhtar, the anchor’s spokeswoman.
Bob Schieffer, who sometimes substitutes for Rather on the “Evening News,” filled in for the anchor on Monday’s broadcast, which led with a story about the panel’s report.
It also seems unlikely that the network will settle the future of the “Evening News” any time soon.
“There’s no news on that,” Moonves said of the search for a new anchor. “We’re not even close to a decision.”
Attempts to reach Howard, Murphy and West were unsuccessful. But in an e-mail sent to reporters covering the story, Mapes said she was “terribly disappointed in the conclusions of the report and its effects on the four of us who will no longer work at CBS News.”
She also criticized Moonves for “vitriolic scape-goating” in his prepared response to the panel’s report.
Of the panel’s view that the report had been rushed to air, Mapes said: “Airing this story when it did was ... a decision made by my superiors, including Andrew Heyward. If there was a journalistic crime committed here, it was not by me.”
Meanwhile, the panel’s report was criticized Monday by radio host Rush Limbaugh and other conservative commentators, who thought that it did not adequately address the liberal bias that they believed led CBS to rush the Bush story to air.
CBS News has been a target of such complaints for years, including a bestselling 2001 book “Bias,” by former CBS staffer Bernard Goldberg.
The panel said that CBS relied heavily on retired Texas Army National Guard Lt. Col. Bill Burkett, who provided Mapes with the documents used in the report and who had been critical of the Bush administration in the past.
Although many media experts praised the panelists for doing a thorough and judicious job, enough questions remained that CBS News would still face a difficult challenge moving past the scandal.
“They have this giant millstone around their neck,” said Richard Wald, a media professor at Columbia University and advisor to ABC News. The scandal “will be raised by every conservative commentator and every press critic there is.”
The incident is also another black eye for American journalism, which has been reeling from an array of scandals in recent years, including New York Times reporter Jayson Blair’s plagiarisms and fabrications, and the Tailwind report of 1998, in which CNN was forced to retract a story alleging that the U.S. military had used nerve gas on defectors during Vietnam.
Almost as soon as the “60 Minutes Wednesday” story aired on CBS, bloggers raised sharp questions about the veracity of the documents. In particular, critics argued that the proportional spacing, superscript “th” and Times New Roman font used in the documents could not have been produced by typewriters in the early 1970s.
CBS News initially insisted that the documents were genuine and stood by the report. The documents had been “thoroughly examined and their authenticity vouched for by independent experts,” the news division said in a Sept. 9 news release.
But the panel said that statement, as well as others issued by CBS News over the following two weeks, was inaccurate. “No expert had vouched for the authenticity of the documents,” the panel report said.
The following day, Sept. 10, Heyward asked West, CBS News’ senior vice president of prime time, to investigate some of the material used in preparing the “60 Minutes” report, including opinions from the forensic document examiners retained by the producers to authenticate the documents. But the panel said no such investigation was ever done.
“Had this directive been followed promptly, the panel does not believe that ’60 Minutes Wednesday’ would have publicly defended the segment for another 10 days,” the report says.
The network’s defense of the story began to crumble on Sept. 16, when the chief source, Burkett, began to change his story. He backed away from his initial claim that he got the documents from George Conn, a former Texas Army National Guard officer.
Getlin reported from New York, Collins from Los Angeles. Times staff writers Paul Lieberman and James Rainey contributed to this report.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Figures behind the CBS scandal
Key players in the drama surrounding the September broadcast on President Bush’s National Guard duty
Mary Mapes, producer, “60 Minutes Wednesday”
Mapes was primarily responsible for the research and development of the segment on President Bush and his military service. Many at CBS News viewed Mapes as a “superstar” reporter and producer; some of her superiors said they were in awe of her work. Mapes, a CBS staffer for 16 years, earned a reputation as a fearless journalist. She covered the 1992 Los Angeles riots and worked as a producer in Kabul just after the U.S. forces entered Afghanistan in 2001. Based in Dallas, she landed the first TV interviews with Strom Thurmond’s biracial daughter and with Hillary Rodham Clinton after President Clinton’s impeachment. Working with Dan Rather, Mapes was the first to obtain photographs showing the Abu Ghraib prison abuses. Mapes and Rather had worked together for more than five years. Rather gave Mapes significant responsibility to produce stories, “in part due to the great confidence and respect he had for her work,” the panel said.
Betsy West, CBS News senior vice president
West was asked by CBS News President Andrew Heyward to make sure the vetting of documents and sources in the “60 Minutes Wednesday” report was complete, and that the report was fair and unbiased. As one of the highest-ranking women at CBS News and an Emmy Award-winning news executive, West oversaw all prime-time news programming and was responsible for giving stories a final “fairness and accuracy” screening. Before joining CBS, West held a series of important assignments for ABC News. She was executive producer of the now-defunct “Turning Point” (1994-97) and created and oversaw the medical and legal units for ABC News. The panel faulted her for not heeding a Sept. 10 request by Heyward to investigate the opinions of documents experts who reviewed the National Guard memos before the Sept. 8 broadcast. No investigation was done, and the network would publicly defend its story another 10 days.
Josh Howard, executive producer, “60 Minutes Wednesday”
Howard joined CBS in 1981 and had begun a new job as executive producer of “60 Minutes Wednesday” three months before the Bush National Guard story aired in September. The panel determined that Howard helped rush the report onto the air without thoroughly questioning Mapes about the story’s sources and documentation. According to the report, he did little to assert his role as the producer ultimately responsible for the broadcast and all its content. He has served for nearly all of the last 14 years at “60 Minutes,” becoming executive editor of the Sunday night broadcast in 2003. He took his last post in June. He was a senior producer for the CBS News magazine “Eye to Eye With Connie Chung” and was a producer for the “CBS Evening News with Dan Rather” from 1986-89. Howard has won 13 Emmy Awards for reports broadcast on the “CBS Evening News with Dan Rather” and “60 Minutes.”
Mary Murphy, senior broadcast producer, “60 Minutes Wednesday” and Howard’s deputy
Murphy’s job was to ride herd over the production of the segment at every stage, making sure it conformed to CBS News’ standards. Like other CBS staffers who were asked to vet the 30-year-old memos, Murphy deferred to Mapes and her production team and did not perform her supervisory function, according to the report.
She worked as senior producer of “48 Hours” and executive producer of “Before Your Eyes,” a 1998 documentary on a deportation battle over three former members of the Irish Republican Army.
She was senior broadcast producer of “CBS Sunday Morning” and senior editor of CBS News’ “Campaign 2004" unit, which was the editorial hub for election-year coverage on all broadcasts. She served in the same capacity for CBS News’ coverage of the war in Iraq.
Dan Rather, anchor and managing editor, “CBS Evening News”; correspondent, “60 Minutes Wednesday”
Rather was the on-camera face of the National Guard story. Busy with the Republican National Convention in New York and then a hurricane in Florida, he was not able to put extensive time into its development. Rather did not appear to participate in any of the vetting sessions, the independent panel said, “or to have even seen the segment before it was aired.” After questions were raised about the veracity of the Guard memos, Rather defended the story but then publicly apologized and acknowledged the memos could not be authenticated.
Rather began his career in journalism 50 years ago as a wire service and radio reporter in Texas.
He joined CBS News in 1962, holding prestigious positions ranging from co-editor of “60 Minutes” to anchor of “CBS Evening News.” He served as bureau chief in London and Saigon and covered the White House during the Johnson and Nixon administrations.
Andrew Heyward, CBS News president
Heyward had explicitly urged caution before the report aired. Afterward, he issued instructions to Betsy West to investigate the sourcing of the story and authentication of the documents.
Before his promotion to president in 1996, he was executive producer of the CBS News magazine “Eye to Eye” from 1993 to 1994 and executive producer, “CBS Evening News,” and vice president, “CBS News” from 1994 to 1996.
Since Heyward was named president, CBS News launched “60 Minutes Wednesday” and the Saturday “Early Show” and developed ventures in new media. Heyward began his career with CBS in 1976 as a news writer for WCBS-TV, the CBS-owned television station in New York. He joined “CBS Evening News” as a field producer in 1984 and later became senior broadcast producer of the “CBS Evening News With Dan Rather” from 1986 to 1987. In 1988, he helped launch “48 Hours,” the primetime CBS news hour.
Los Angeles Times
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Events in the scandal
An independent panel criticized CBS News for a controversial “60 Minutes Wednesday” story last fall about President Bush’s military service. Here are the events surrounding the controversy:
Aug. 23, 2004: A week before the Republican National Convention, Mary Mapes, a CBS correspondent and producer, learns that Lt. Col. Bill Burkett is rumored to have important documents regarding Bush’s military service.
Sept. 2: Mapes receives two memos from Burkett. She and other CBS staffers begin “a frenetic effort to ‘crash,’” or quickly assemble, the story for broadcast, according to the independent panel.
Sept. 3: An associate producer is assigned to have the documents authenticated. Yvonne Miller has no background in this process but finds four handwriting and document experts willing to look at them.
Labor Day weekend: Mapes speaks by phone with Joe Lockhart, a senior advisor to Sen. John F. Kerry’s presidential campaign. They would later give conflicting versions of the discussion.
Sept. 8, 2004: Rather presents the report on Bush’s service, based largely on four typed memos that it said were written by Bush’s late squadron commander, Lt. Col. Jerry Killian.
Sept. 9: Four hours after broadcast, a blogger named “Buckhead” is the first to challenge the authenticity of the documents. Other challenges follow.
Sept. 10: Rather says CBS stands by its story. CBS News defends the original report for several more days.
Sept. 20: After handwriting experts and the clerk typist for Bush’s supervisor question the authenticity of the memos, Rather apologizes and says CBS can no longer vouch for them.
Sept. 22: CBS names an independent panel to investigate the National Guard story.
Nov. 23: Rather announces he will step down as anchor and managing editor of the “CBS Evening News” on March 9, 2005.
Jan. 10, 2005: The independent panel releases its findings in a 224-page report.