Panel Criticizes CBS's 'Myopic Zeal' in Bush National Guard Report

July 7, 2008 - 8:05 PM

(1st Add: Includes statement from Leslie Moonves, co-president and co-chief operating officer of Viacom and chairman and chief executive officer of CBS.)

(CNSNews.com) - Four CBS News employees have been ousted in connection with CBS's flawed, inaccurate "September surprise" story questioning George W. Bush's National Guard service.

The departing CBS staffers include Senior Vice President Betsy West; "60 Minutes/Wednesday" Executive Producer Josh Howard and his deputy, Mary Murphy, all three of whom were asked to resign, press reports said Monday morning.

Mary Mapes, the producer of the segment on George W. Bush's National Guard service, was fired. Equally as important as who was fired is who was not fired: CBS News President Andrew Heyward will remain in his job, something that will upset people who believe that Heyward is a key player in CBS's allegedly biased reporting.

Dan Rather, who reported the Bush-bashing piece, is retiring from his anchor duties in March.

The independent panel asked to investigate the "60 Minutes Wednesday" report said that CBS, in its "myopic zeal" to be first with the story, sacrificed accuracy and did not meet CBS's internal standards.

"The combination of a new '60 Minutes Wednesday' management team, great deference given to a highly respected producer and the network's news anchor, competitive pressures, and a zealous belief in the truth of the segment seem to have led many to disregard some fundamental journalistic principles," the report concluded.

The timing of the story -- coming as it did on Sept. 8, about two months before the November election -- and the questionable source of the story (it was based on faked documents) further damaged the credibility of CBS News and led to charges of political bias.

On Sept. 20, CBS News finally admitted it had been "misled" by the story's main source -- former Texas Guard official Bill Burkett, who opposed the re-election of President Bush. CBS said it could not prove that documents Burkett provided were authentic -- weeks after many Americans judged those documents to be fraudulent, based on their modern typeface and format.

"We should not have used them," Andrew Heyward said in the Sept. 20 statement. "That was a mistake, which we deeply regret."

In a separate statement on Sept. 20, CBS News anchor Dan Rather finally admitted that he no longer had confidence in the documents on which his report was based. "I find we have been misled on the key question of how our source for the documents came into possession of these papers," Rather said.

"That, combined with some of the questions that have been raised in public and in the press, leads me to a point where -- if I knew then what I know now -- I would not have gone ahead with the story as it was aired, and I certainly would not have used the documents in question," he said.

"But we did use the documents," Rather said. "We made a mistake in judgment, and for that I am sorry. It was an error that was made, however, in good faith and in the spirit of trying to carry on a CBS News tradition of investigative reporting without fear or favoritism."

Errors of 'both commission and omission'

Leslie Moonves, co-president and co-chief operating officer of Viacom and chairman and chief executive officer of CBS, said in a statement Monday, "As far as the question of reporting is concerned, the bottom line is that much of the September 8th broadcast was wrong, incomplete or unfair."

"The Panel found that the producer of the segment, Mary Mapes, ignored information that cast doubt on the story she had set out to report - that President Bush had received special treatment more than 30 years ago, getting into the Guard ahead of many other applicants, and had done so to avoid service in Vietnam," said Moonves.

"As the Panel found, statements made by sources were ignored, as were notes in Mapes' own files," he added.

"Most troubling, however, are the Panel's findings regarding Mapes' ongoing contention, later proven to be false, that the documents used in the story were thoroughly authenticated and had been obtained from an 'impeccable' source who had established, in retrospect, a questionable chain of custody for them," Moonves said.

"Beyond that were the evident misrepresentations of statements made to her by sources who later disavowed them. The Panel also found that Mapes presented half-truths as facts to those with whom she worked," he added.

"And they trusted her, relied on her impressive reputation and proven track record, and did not hold her to the high standards of accountability that have always been the backbone of CBS News reporting," said Moonves.

"There are, of course, supposed to be institutional safeguards against over-eager reporters. In this case, the vetting process failed. On many occasions, Mapes and her team referred to the source of the now-discredited documents as 'unimpeachable' and as someone 'without an ax to grind' against President Bush," he said.

"However, there was little or no attempt along the way to ascertain from the producers who that confidential source was. In the end, it turned out that this individual was anything but 'unimpeachable,'" Moonves added.

"Just as bad was the process of authenticating the documents, as described in the Panel's report," he said. "Assured by Mapes that she had ample expert authentication of the documents, 60 Minutes Wednesday and CBS News management did little to seek affidavits from the handwriting experts.

"In fact, the people in charge of vetting the piece were never told that while four people were given some documents to authenticate the handwriting and the typography, two experts were discounted when they raised objections, and all four experts warned that documents could not be authenticated from Xeroxed copies," Moonves said.

"Actually, as the report shows, only one expert had tentatively authenticated only one signature which seemed to match a known sample. Thus three documents were put on the air without any sort of handwriting authentication and, in the end, none of the experts consulted by CBS News was willing to authenticate the documents," he said.

"There was, in short, no effective vetting of these critical documents by those at CBS News required to do so, or of many other statements in the September 8th report, or of the reports that followed on the CBS Evening News. Once again, the system broke down, relying on trust rather than the implementation of existing standards," said Moonves.

"Once the report aired, as the Panel makes quite clear, CBS News continued to support the segment and the documents for 12 days, despite rising criticism that the documents were not authentic," he said.

"Instead of asserting its role of independent oversight, CBS News management circled the wagons and encouraged a campaign of support for the report, going so far as to allow the very personnel who were being challenged in the matter to produce follow-up reports in support of the segment," added Moonves.

Moonves said there were errors of "both commission and omission, but each and every such failure must be met with an appropriate action that will demonstrate CBS's intolerance of such performance."

"The first such actions pertain to people who were involved in the production, vetting and overall decision-making process of the September 8th broadcast. Next, we will discuss other steps that we will be taking to respond to the various recommendations of the Panel and our own sense of what needs to be done," Moonves said.

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