WASHINGTON (Talon News) — The long-awaited results of an independent investigation into the use of forged documents in a CBS 60 Minutes report on Sept. 8 about President Bush’s military service 30 years ago was released Monday along with an announcement that four employees would be terminated. The report and dismissals were seen by some as too harsh and others as incomplete and not going far enough.
The network named the investigative panel on Sept. 22 under pressure from affiliate stations who were inundated by viewer complaints. Internet sites which had quickly determined the CBS documents to be forgeries as well as conservative talk radio amplified the calls for investigation.
The panel was comprised of former U.S. Attorney General Dick Thornburgh and retired Associated Press President and Chief Executive Officer Louis D. Boccardi. The two issued a 224-page report that purported to be a comprehensive examination of the scandal, but fell short in the eyes of those closest to the controversy.
The Boccardi-Thornburgh team worked for more than three months interviewing more than 60 people, including 32 from CBS News some of who were involved with the story, as well as others who were not.
Les Moonves, co-president and co-chief operating officer of Viacom and chairman and chief executive officer of CBS, issued an 8-page statement along with the report that summarized the panel’s findings and detailed the actions taken by the network.
Moonves pointed to the panel’s determination that the trouble began when the investigative report was “crashed” — rushed onto the air — to beat the perceived competition. Moonves noted that “basic journalistic steps were not carried out in a manner consistent with accurate and fair reporting, leading to countless misstatements and omissions.”
The CBS official agreed that there were lapses every step of the way in the reporting and vetting of the segment and in the reaction of CBS News in the aftermath of the report. Moonves also admitted that much of the September 8 broadcast was wrong, incomplete, or unfair.
The panel put much of the responsibility on the producer of the segment, Mary Mapes, whom it said 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. The investigation revealed that statements made by sources were ignored, as were notes in Mapes’ own files.
The most disturbing conclusion drawn by the panel was that 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. She also misrepresented statements made to her by sources who later disavowed them.
The report believes that Mapes’ presentation of half-truths as facts to those with whom she worked was at the root of the debacle. Because her colleagues trusted her, they relied on her impressive reputation and proven track record, and did not hold her to the high standards of accountability.
The vetting process for the documents was flawed as well. Mapes circumvented institutional safeguards with regard to the source of the documents and their authentication.
Moonves said that Mapes was to be immediately terminated, blaming her for not only failure to properly authenticate the documents but also for her accounts that differed radically from those of her colleagues and sources.
Talon News was first to identify Mapes as a key figure in the scandal on Sept. 17 (see earlier story) and accurately reported that her fate was sealed months ago.
While Mapes was fired outright, three others were “asked to resign.” They include Josh Howard, the executive producer of 60 Minutes Wednesday since June of 2004, whom the panel said did little to assert his role. Mary Murphy, senior broadcast producer for the program, was also asked to leave along with Betsy West, senior vice president for prime time.
Spared from the purge were anchor Dan Rather and CBS News President Andrew Heyward. The panel found that Dan Rather was pushed to the limit in the week before the Sept. 8 broadcast. It recounted Rather’s hectic schedule of anchoring at the 2004 Republican Convention and covering Hurricane Frances in Florida. He was convinced that the documents were authenticated because he was told in no uncertain terms that is was so.
Moonves said that because Rather has already announced that he would step down in March 2005, he believes “any further action would not be appropriate.”
Heyward would be retained because he explicitly warned West and Howard that CBS will have to defend “every syllable” of the segment and specifically urged them not to allow the production team to “stampede us.” In the aftermath of the report, he issued direct instructions to investigate the sourcing of the story and the authentication of the documents and pressed for his staff to come up with new and substantive information rather than merely standing by the story in a “stubborn repetition of what we’ve already said.”
The panel also reported that it did not find “a basis to accuse those who investigated, produced, vetted, or aired the segment of having a political bias.”
It is that statement that has critics discounting the report. Further, the investigation fails to provide new insight into the involvement of the John Kerry campaign. Numerous contacts between Mapes and Kerry spokesman Joe Lockhart were judged to be inappropriate, but no evidence of suspected collusion was presented.
The White House was magnanimous following the report’s release.
Press Secretary Scott McClellan said, “We felt all along that it was important for CBS to get to the bottom of this. CBS has taken steps to hold people accountable, and we appreciate those steps. We also hope that CBS will take steps to prevent something like this from happening again.”
But no apology from CBS to the president it maligned with the phony documents was included in the report of Moonves’ statement.
McClellan told Talon News, “I think CBS has previously expressed regret about this story airing.”
Heywood and Washington Bureau Chief Janet Leissner paid a visit to the White House two weeks ago, discussing the report’s findings with Communications Director Dan Bartlett. They promised fairer treatment in the future.
Talon News sources at CBS indicated that the report was finalized some time ago, and Rather made his decision to step down after reading a draft copy. Moonves said Monday that his early departure was tied to the scandal.
Critics began to speak up shortly after the report’s release. House Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-MO) called on CBS to retract the story. He reacted strongly to the independent panel’s conclusion that CBS “failed to follow basic journalistic principles” in researching and reporting the story based on documents that CBS has never proved are factual.
Blunt said, “An independent group has underscored what we already knew: CBS failed to uphold its most basic responsibility to its viewers when it aired a false and scurrilous story that deceived the American people and impugned their president.”
“Now it is time for CBS to take the responsible step and formally retract the story,” Blunt continued. “Certainly President Bush, after four months, deserves an on-air retraction.”
In September, Blunt gathered 40 signatures of his colleagues on a letter sent to Heyward, demanding that the network disavow its coverage of Bush’s National Guard Service. The Members of Congress have not received a response.
RatherBiased.com’s Greg Sheffield released a statement on the events surrounding the scandal, saying, “Everyone who got fired deserved to be fired. No one who was deeply involved in the production of a report based on fraudulent documents deserves to work in any news organization.”
Sheffield called for Heyward’s dismissal, saying, “These firings are a good start toward the path of objectivity for CBS. But if the network wants to truly show that it is serious about being fair, it needs to fire News president Andrew Heyward who personally approved a public relations strategy of stonewalling and lying when confronted with evidence that CBS had erred.”
Center for Individual Freedom President Jeffrey Mazzella agreed, saying, “CBS’s response does not go nearly far enough. While we agree that ousting the four responsible staffers was appropriate, we cannot understand why Dan Rather and Andrew Heyward were not also fired. They were, at a minimum, equally responsible for the story.”
Mazzella dismissed the contention that there was no political motive behind the story.
“Mary Mapes has admitted that she sought to coordinate with Joe Lockhart,” Mazzella said. “The 60 Minutes team was anxious for the story to run in the days leading up to the election. Mapes and Rather obviously wanted to influence the election with a negative story about President Bush.”
CFIF filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission because of the appearance of illegal coordination between CBS and the Kerry campaign.
“We are hopeful the FEC will now act on our complaint to hold CBS and all who were involved truly accountable,” Mazzella added.