Wall Street Journal Editorial Board’s take on the internal CBS report – I for one think it’s amusing that the investigators had no problem assigning political motives to the bloggers, but wouldn’t apply the same standards to CBS – of course, this was an internal investigation, not an independent investigation, so I guess it’s better than it could have been:
January 11, 2005; Page A20
CBS promised last fall to get to the bottom of Dan Rather’s discredited September 8 broadcast on President Bush’s National Guard service. Yesterday’s report by the independent panel charged with investigating the “60 Minutes” segment fulfills that vow. It is a thorough, no-holds-barred look at how it happened. If only it were as good at explaining why.
The investigating team (led by former Attorney General Dick Thornburgh and former AP chief Louis Boccardi) confirmed what much of the viewing public has believed all along – that the broadcast was neither fair nor accurate. CBS News failed to follow basic journalistic principles in reporting the segment, the panel found, and it compounded that error with a “rigid and blind” defense of the sources and documents on which the story was based.
Specifically, it took 12 days for CBS to concede that it could not confirm the authenticity of the documents – which the blogosphere began questioning within hours of the show’s airing. Recall how Web sleuths first detected that the memos at issue couldn’t have been created with 1970s-era typewriter fonts but were probably done on modern computers. If this were Journalism 101, or Business Management 101, CBS would have flunked.
Like the recent journalism scandals at the New York Times and USA Today, the CBS imbroglio is not just about the failure of one or two reporters – in this case, news anchor Dan Rather and veteran producer Mary Mapes. It’s also about the failure of their supervisors to enforce standards and take criticism seriously. All editors – including us – have a duty to defend reporters who take on difficult subjects and stir controversy by telling the truth. It’s equally important, however, to respond quickly when serious errors are alleged – especially about a story that had all kinds of red flags on it. In this instance, CBS producers circled the wagons too soon, and for too long.
CBS announced that in response to the panel’s findings it is holding a number of employees responsible. Ms. Mapes has been fired, and three senior news executives – Betsy West, Josh Howard and Mary Murphy – have been asked to resign. Mr. Rather was tagged by CBS CEO Leslie Moonves with the smaller sin of “errors of credulity and over-enthusiasm” and suffered no disciplinary action. But he has already announced he is retiring earlier than expected as anchor of CBS Evening News, and his departure looks to us like a case of (as Mr. Rather might put it himself) leaving Dodge City ahead of the posse.
Which brings us to the “why” of the report, and the panel’s reluctance to detect the partisan political motives that just about everyone else in the world suspects. The panel faults Ms. Mapes for creating “the appearance of political bias” by giving a Kerry campaign official advance notice of the story, but that’s about as far as it will go. It rejects outright the suggestion that there was any political agenda driving the story.
It pins the blame instead on Ms. Mapes’s “myopic zeal” in pursuit of a ground-breaking story that other news organizations were also pursuing. So we are supposed to believe that the flawed CBS segment was the result of overeager journalists’ desire to be “first” with a will-o’-the-wisp of a story that was at least four, and arguably closer to 10, years old – and, by the way, that it was merely coincidental that these eager beavers pushed the story out after Labor Day amid a bitter election campaign.
The discussion on motives includes a section titled “Factors that Support a Conclusion that a Political Agenda Did Not Motivate the September 8 Segment.” And the No. 1 example is “The Previous Work of Rather and Mapes.” Really.
As we saw it, the last election included the most one-sided political reporting we’ve ever witnessed, including the coverage of Richard Nixon circa 1972-74. Most of the established media outlets favored John Kerry – which is fine by us if they would only admit it. CBS’s reporters made the further mistake of letting that bias so color their judgment that they were willing to believe phony documents from a partisan source without proper authentication. Good for CBS for coming clean about the process, but good luck convincing its viewers about the lack of partisan motives.