T Nation

CBS, Democrats & the Papers

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:

Rathergate Revisited
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.

BTW, the appendices have now been attached to the report.

Appendix 4 gives the conclusion that the memos were indeed false, and that the font was Times New Roman and could not have been produced by the IBM Composer typewriter:

In Appendix 2, we see better copies of the memos than were available contemporaneously to the arguments, and they highlight even better how fake the memos were:

Here is a link to all the Appendices and Exhibits:

Good summary of the reactions to the CBS report by Howard Kurtz in the Washington Post:



Finally, here’s my latest report on CBS:

If there is one line in the 224-page report on CBS News that has set critics aflame, it is that there is no “basis” for concluding that Dan Rather and his colleagues had a “political bias” in pursuing their badly botched story about President Bush’s National Guard service.

What, they say? No evidence?

“In any fair-minded assessment of how CBS performed and why they so badly butchered their own standards, that has to be part of the explanation,” said former New York Times reporter Steve Roberts, now a professor at George Washington University. “It’s not just that they wanted to be first, they wanted to be first with a story that was critical of the president.”

The investigators hired by CBS “lay out a bunch of evidence of political bias, and very little exculpatory evidence, and then throw their hands in the air,” said Weekly Standard writer Jonathan Last. “Rather is sitting here maintaining, despite everything, that the memos don’t actually matter, that the story is right.”

Rather told the panel the accusations of bias were “absolutely, unequivocally untrue.” The 73-year-old anchor was in the unusual position of declining to comment when Bob Schieffer led off the “CBS Evening News” on Monday with the report eviscerating Rather’s Sept. 8 story on Bush. Rather wasn’t granting interviews yesterday.

In a statement yesterday that dealt with none of the specifics, Rather, who will step down as anchor in March, addressed CBS’s ouster of three top executives and his producer, Mary Mapes: "Four good people have lost their jobs. My strongest reaction is one of sadness and concern for those individuals whom I know and with whom I have worked. . . .

“We should take seriously the admonition of the report’s authors to do our job well and carefully, but also their parallel admonition not to be afraid to cover important and controversial issues.”

Also granting no interviews yesterday was CBS News President Andrew Heyward, who survived in his job while lesser heads rolled.

Louis Boccardi, the former Associated Press chief executive who headed the panel with former attorney general Dick Thornburgh, said they "didn’t feel we could say, ‘We accuse you, Mary Mapes, of having a political bias and we can prove it.’ Instead we said, ‘Look, here are the things these folks did, that the program did.’ " This, Boccardi acknowledged, “won’t satisfy anybody who thinks anything short of outright condemnation, a finding of political bias, was an act of cowardice . . . that we didn’t have the nerve, courage, wisdom, insight to say it.” But, he added, “bias is a hard thing to prove.”

Not according to Rather’s critics, who have long painted him as the embodiment of media liberalism. They point to Rather’s on-air shouting match with then-Vice President Bush in 1988 and his 2001 speech at a Texas Democratic fundraiser involving his daughter.

Under the heading “Information that Might Suggest a Political Agenda,” the report listed a five-year pursuit of the Guard story by Rather and Mapes; the use of strongly anti-Bush sources; and Mapes’s call to Joe Lockhart, which put the John Kerry campaign adviser in touch with Bill Burkett, the source of the suspect Guard documents about Bush’s military service. (On the opposite side, the panel cited previous reporting by Rather and Mapes in both Democratic and Republican administrations.)

Mapes’s zeal for the story is clear from her e-mail to a freelancer with a lead on the Guard documents: “I desperately want to talk to you. . . . Do NOT underestimate how much I want this story.”

CBS News Vice President Linda Mason, named to a new post overseeing broadcast standards, said the network faces a perception problem on the bias question, in part because the Mapes call to Lockhart “gives the impression you’re working with a political campaign to help them.”

“There was a rush because Mary felt it was a great story and she was going to get scooped on it by USA Today,” Mason said. “I think she would have done that with any story. I firmly believe if they found something about Kerry and his past, they’d be rushing to get that on the air, too.”

Hard-charging reporters, by their nature, push to get stories on the air or in print, sometimes against the reservations of their superiors. They are trained to see patterns, connect the dots, nail down the case against the politician or businessman in their sights. No one wins fame, fortune and journalism prizes by sitting on an explosive report.

“What happens is you become invested in a story and it becomes yours, and you want to nurture it and see it through to the finish,” said Jackie Judd, an investigative reporter for ABC News for 16 years. Editors “want to see the product, get something on the air. . . . There is this race to be first that’s undeniable. You just try to put the brakes on yourself.”

During the 1998 Monica Lewinsky investigation, said Judd, now a vice president at the Kaiser Family Foundation, she heard that another news outlet was chasing a story she was working on about a secondary player in the case. “In all candor, it did up the pressure to produce,” she said. "We were working toward the goal of getting on the air that night. At 6 o’clock, my producer and I looked at each other and said, ‘We don’t have the goods.’ " It was “really hard,” said Judd, to tell that to her New York bosses.

If the impetus to air an eye-catching story is strong, the “we stand by our story” reflex is just as deeply embedded in the journalistic DNA. Thornburgh and Boccardi were sharply critical of CBS executives’ decision to staunchly defend the “60 Minutes Wednesday” piece for 12 days, despite mounting evidence that it was shaky.

Two days after the broadcast, Mapes told top CBS executives in a conference call that her story was solid, that document validation was a “black art” and an “inexact science” and that two of the female experts hired by CBS and now challenging the documents’ authenticity were “flaky.”

Jim Murphy, the “Evening News” executive producer, sent colleagues an e-mail saying his media contacts thought CBS’s defense of the story was weak. This prompted a response from Gil Schwartz, executive vice president for communications:

"1. We need our expert available NOW to speak to all those who are reporting the story. We need the expert. Now. We need him now.

"2. We need the talking points that can be crafted into a statement of defense and talked about by Dan when he calls people.

#1 is essential RIGHT NOW. We NEED THAT EXPERT. [W]ithout him, we’re TOAST.”

Mapes, meanwhile, sent Schwartz an e-mail saying the issue of a superscript “th” that critics said proved the Guard documents could not be three decades old had been resolved. He replied: “As far as the press is concerned, the ‘th’ issue is NOT gone. . . . If we wait to address the issue until tonight’s news, we will DIE in the press tomorrow. Die. As in . . . dead.”

That afternoon, Heyward endorsed a plan suggested by Schwartz: “Dan get on the phone right now. He can say that we believe the forensics and will have more in tonight’s report. . . . Jim [Murphy should] call back his various buds and tell them to watch tonight’s evening news.”

In a statement to the press, CBS said the documents were provided “by unimpeachable sources” and “backed up not only by independent handwriting and forensic document experts but by sources familiar with their content.”

But the statement didn’t hold up. The lead expert, Marcel Matley, later told The Washington Post that he had examined only a signature and made no attempt to authenticate the documents themselves. The female experts told ABC News they had warned CBS about the documents. And the “unimpeachable” source, Burkett, admitted having lied to CBS.

“We didn’t come clean soon enough,” Linda Mason said yesterday. But, she added, “Dan does think he’s constantly attacked. If we backed off every story that was criticized, we wouldn’t be doing any stories.”

Charles Krauthammer has an excellent column on Rather-gate today in the Washington Post:

[Free registration required to follow link]

Rather Biased

By Charles Krauthammer
Friday, January 14, 2005; Page A19

First comes the crime: Dan Rather’s late hit on President Bush’s Air National Guard service, featuring what were almost immediately revealed to be forged documents.

Then comes the coverup: 12 days of CBS stonewalling, with Dan Rather using his evening news platform to (a) call his critics “partisan political operatives,” (b) claim falsely that the documents were authenticated by experts, and © claim that he had “solid sources,” which turned out to be a rabid anti-Bush partisan with a history of, shall we say, prolific storytelling.

Now comes the twist: The independent investigation – clueless, uncomprehending and in its own innocent way disgraceful – pretends that this fiasco was in no way politically motivated.

The investigation does note that the show’s producer called Joe Lockhart of the Kerry campaign to alert him to the story and to urge him to contact the purveyor of the incriminating documents. It concludes that this constitutes an “appearance of political bias.” What would producer Mary Mapes have had to do to go beyond appearance? Show up at the Kerry headquarters?

CBS had been pursuing the story for five years. Five years! The Manhattan Project took three. Five years for a minor episode in a 30-year-old byway in the life of the president? This story had been vetted not only in two Texas gubernatorial races but twice more by the national media, once in 2000 and then yet again earlier in 2004 when Michael Moore’s “deserter” charge and Terry McAuliffe’s “AWOL” charge touched off a media frenzy that culminated in a Newsweek cover.

To what, then, does the report attribute Mapes’s great-white-whale obsession with the story? Her Texas roots. I kid you not. She comes from Texas and likes Texas stories. You believe that and you will believe that a 1972 typewriter can tuck the letter “i” right up against the umbrella of the letter “f” (as can Microsoft Word).

Did Mapes and Rather devote a fraction of the resources they gave this story to a real scandal, such as the oil-for-food scandal at the United Nations, or contrary partisan political charges, such as those brought by the Swift boat vets against John Kerry? On the United Nations, no interest. On Kerry, what CBS did do was ad hominem investigative stories on the Swift boat veterans themselves, rather than an examination of the charges. Do you perceive a direction to these inclinations?

Now comes the National Guard story, the most blindingly partisan bungle in recent journalistic history, and the august investigative panel, CBS News and most of the mainstream media do not have a clue. The bungle is attributed to haste and sloppiness. Haste, yes. To get the story out in time to damage, perhaps fatally, the president’s chances of reelection.

This is not an isolated case. In fact the case is a perfect illustration of an utterly commonplace phenomenon: the mainstream media’s obliviousness to its own liberal bias.

I do not attribute this to bad faith. I attribute it to (as Marx would say) false consciousness – contracted by living in the liberal media cocoons of New York, Washington and Los Angeles, in which any other worldview is simply and truly inconceivable. This myopia was most perfectly captured by Pauline Kael’s famous remark after Nixon’s 1972 landslide: “I don’t know how Richard Nixon could have won. I don’t know anybody who voted for him.”

Multiple polls of the media elite have confirmed Kael’s inadvertent sociological insight. One particularly impartial poll, taken by the Freedom Forum in 1996, found that of 139 Washington bureau chiefs and congressional correspondents, 89 percent supported Bill Clinton in the previous election, vs. 7 percent for George H.W. Bush. The rest of America went 43 percent to 37 percent.

Some argue that personal allegiance does not matter because it is possible to be partisan at home and yet consciously bias-free at work.

Possible, yes. Actual? The Project for Excellence in Journalism did a careful study of mainstream media stories in September and October. The numbers are stunning.

To take one example, Oct. 1-14, 2004: Percent of stories about Bush that are negative – 59 percent. Percent of stories about Kerry that are negative – 25 percent. Stories favorable to Bush? 14 percent. Favorable to Kerry? 34 percent.

That is not a difference. That is a chasm. And you do not have to be a weatherman to ascertain wind direction. When, in February 2003, Gallup asked Americans their perception of media bias, 45 percent said the media were too liberal, 15 percent said they were too conservative. That’s 3 to 1.

Bias spectacularly, if redundantly, confirmed by Rathergate. All that is missing is a signed confession.