As you have no doubt heard, the report of from the independent investigation conducted by former Attorney General Dick Thornburgh and former Associated Press President Louis Boccardi into CBS' thoroughly discredited broadcast about President Bush's National Guard service has been released. The blogosphere has referred to this story as Rathergate and Memogate.
I have not had a chance to read the 224-page report, but I have read a number of press reports which are damning.
The first thing noted by most reports is that four CBS executives were fired Monday following the release of the report.
- Betsy West, Senior Vice President
West supervises CBS's prime-time programs.
- Josh Howard, "60 Minutes'' Executive Producer
- Mary Murphy, Howard's Deputy
- Mary Mapes, Producer of the Discredited Story
Don't forget that On November 23 Rather announced plans to step down as anchor and managing editor of "The CBS Evening News" on March 9.
Washington Post reports that the outside panel found "considerable and fundamental deficiencies" at CBS News in its reporting of the Rathergate story. According to the Post, CBS President Leslie Moonves accepted the panel's findings, saying in a statement that "there were lapses every step of the way--in the reporting and the vetting of the segment and in the reaction of CBS News in the aftermath of the report." He also said that "Mapes presented half-truths as facts to those with whom she worked:"
Moonves said in his statement that Rather "asked the right questions initially, but then made the same errors of credulity and over-enthusiasm that beset many of his colleagues. . . . He defended the story overzealously afterward. . . . The panel has found that his unwillingness to consider that CBS News and his colleagues were in the wrong was a mistake."
Since Rather is giving up the anchor chair, however, Moonves said further action "would not be appropriate."
The Post article also highlighted the following:
- The outside panel said it could not definitively prove that the 30-year-old memos said to have been written by Lt. Col. Jerry Killian, Bush's late squadron commander in the Texas Air National Guard, were bogus. But it said there had been a "failure" by CBS to authenticate any of the documents and that "60 Minutes" had aired the "false" statement that an expert had verified the documents when all he did was authenticate one signature on one document.
- CBS also failed to interview the person who provided the suspect memos to its source, former Texas Guard official Bill Burkett, and never established Rather's claim that the papers "were taken from Colonel Killian's personal files."
- Mapes's call to Joe Lockhart, then a senior adviser to Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry, in which she asked him to speak with her source Burkett, was "a clear conflict of interest" that "created the appearance of a political bias," the report said.
- Taken together, the Thornburgh-Boccardi findings amount to a repudiation of the newsgathering process of CBS News and the midweek spinoff of one of its crown jewels, "60 Minutes." It also tarnished the reputation of Rather, the CBS News anchor since 1981, who would have faced considerable pressure to step down if he had not set a retirement date before the report was issued. Rather plans to continue as a correspondent for "60 Minutes."
- The panel was equally tough on CBS's decision to doggedly defend the National Guard story for nearly two weeks after the authenticity of the documents came under fire.
- The report assailed the "strident defense" made without "any adequate probing whether any of the questions raised had merit." CBS should not have allowed many of the same people involved in reporting the flawed Sept. 8 story to handle the follow-up pieces on the "CBS Evening News," some of which were "misleading," the report said.
- CBS News also made "inaccurate press statements" that the then-secret source of the documents was "unimpeachable" and that numerous experts had vouched for their authenticity, the panel found.
- Moonves reserved his harshest words for Mapes, saying that "her basic reporting was faulty and her responses when questioned led others who trusted her down the wrong road. Her confidential source was not reliable and her authenticators were unable to authenticate the documents, yet she maintained the opposite."
The New York Times reports that the outside panel found that CBS rushed the report onto the air in September in a frenetic dash to beat its competitors.
"These problems were caused primarily by a myopic zeal to be the first news organization to broadcast what was believed to be a new story about President Bush's Texas Air National Guard service, and the rigid and blind defense of the segment after it aired despite numerous indications of its shortcomings."
According to the Times, Boccardi and Thornburgh presented evidence they contend shows that Ms. Mapes misled - or at the least was not forthcoming with - her superiors about the origin of the documents or of the results of efforts to verify them.
Other highlights in the Times article include:
- "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," Mr. Moonves, who is also chairman of CBS, said in a statement. "We deeply regret the disservice this flawed '60 Minutes' Wednesday report did to the American public, which has a right to count on CBS News for fairness and accuracy in all it does."
- "The investigation quickly identified considerable and fundamental deficiencies relating to the reporting and production of the September 8 segment and the statements and news reports during the aftermath," the panelists wrote.
- While the panelists said they could find no definitive evidence that the network prepared and broadcast the report based on political bias, they cited one instance in which Ms. Mapes "created the appearance of a political bias." In the course of reporting the segment, Ms. Mapes had reached out to the campaign of Senator John Kerry, Mr. Bush's Democratic opponent, and asked that it contact the former National Guard officer who would later be identified as the source of the documents.
- "The panel reviewed this issue and found certain actions that could support such charges," the panelists wrote. "However, the panel cannot conclude that a political agenda at '60 Minutes' Wednesday drove either the timing of the airing of the segment or its content."
The Associated Press labeled the Thornburgh/Boccardi "damning" and reported that the review said CBS compounded the damage with a circle-the-wagons mentality once the report came under fire.
According to the AP, Mapes had no comment on the report:
Reached at her Dallas home Monday, Mapes said: "I haven't seen the report yet, so I won't be saying anything until I do."
Other highlights of the AP report include:
- They [Thornburgh and Boccardi] also said it was "inappropriate" for Mapes to have helped Burkett get in contact with Joe Lockhart, a political adviser to Democrat John Kerry, in the midst of the presidential campaign. But Boccardi said that to conclude CBS was guilty of anti-Bush bias would be to make the same mistake "60 Minutes Wednesday" made - drawing a conclusion without enough evidence.
- The panelists even faulted CBS' eventual apology for the story, saying the network placed too much blame on Burkett and not enough on itself.
- Rather was portrayed as an overworked anchor who had just finished coverage of the Republican convention and Hurricane Frances in Florida. As a result, he did little to help prepare the original report, and did not even appear to have seen it before it aired, the panel said.
- An aide to Rather said Monday that he would have no immediate comment on the report, since he had just returned from covering the tsunami in Thailand and had not yet read it.
- Both Moonves and the panel said it hoped the report did not have a "chilling effect" on CBS' commitment to investigative journalism.
Bloomberg reports that CBS failed to do fair and accurate reporting and made "lapses every step of the way."
Other highlights from the Bloomberg report include:
- CBS said Rather has taken "personal responsibility" for the story and the network will take no further action against him. CBS News President Andrew Heyward will also stay.
- "All Americans should welcome today's report on CBS News' unprofessional conduct," Ed Gillespie, chairman of the Republican National Committee, said in a statement. "CBS deserves praise for undertaking this effort."
- The network relied on a "controversial source with a partisan point of view" and failed to authenticate the documents used. It assigned that job to a junior staffer with no experience at such a task.
- Rather asked "the right questions" about the team who put together the story but was unwilling to consider they could be wrong, according to the report.
- Rather recanted the story on Sept. 20 and said the network was "deliberately misled" by retired National Guard Lieutenant Colonel Bill Burkett, who provided the documents. CBS said Burkett provided a false account of the documents' origins.
Reuters reports that the report found that Rather, "does not appear to have participated in any of the vetting sessions or to have even seen the segment before it was aired."
According to Reuters, the rathergate scandal deals another blow to credibility in journalism, adding CBS News to a list of media tainted by sloppy or false reporting. Other casualties have included The New York Times, USA Today, the BBC, Washington Post and CNN.