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."
The investigation commissioned by CBS determined that producer Mary Mapes, shown in Afghanistan in 2001, and news anchor Dan Rather had pursued the story of President Bush's National Guard service for five years but said there was no basis for concluding the two had a "political bias."
(Courtesy Of The Mapes Family)
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: