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.