CBS News anchor Dan Rather apologized yesterday for a "mistake in judgment" in relying on apparently bogus documents for a "60 Minutes" report charging that President Bush received favorable treatment in the National Guard, ending a nearly two-week-long defense of the network's journalistic conduct that media analysts say has badly hurt its credibility.
CBS also acknowledged for the first time that its source was retired Texas National Guard official Bill Burkett, who Rather said in an interview had "misled" and "lied to" the network in describing how he obtained the purported 30-year-old memos said to have been signed by Bush's late squadron commander.
Dan Rather's Apology|
A statement from Dan Rather of CBS News:
Last week, amid increasing questions about the authenticity of documents used in support of a 60 MINUTES WEDNESDAY story about President Bush's time in the Texas Air National Guard, CBS News vowed to re-examine the documents in question -- and their source -- vigorously. And we promised that we would let the American public know what this examination turned up, whatever the outcome.
Now, after extensive additional interviews, I no longer have the confidence in these documents that would allow us to continue vouching for them journalistically. I find we have been misled on the key question of how our source for the documents came into possession of these papers. That, combined with some of the questions that have been raised in public and in the press, leads me to a point where -- if I knew then what I know now -- I would not have gone ahead with the story as it was aired, and I certainly would not have used the documents in question.
But we did use the documents. We made a mistake in judgment, and for that I am sorry. It was an error that was made, however, in good faith and in the spirit of trying to carry on a CBS News tradition of investigative reporting without fear or favoritism.
Please know that nothing is more important to us than people's trust in our ability and our commitment to report fairly and truthfully.
Video: The Post's Michael Dobbs talks about the flap over CBS and documents pertaining to President Bush's National Guard service.
"I deeply regret I wasn't as good on this story as I should have been," Rather said. Asked whether he felt tarnished, he replied: "I have confidence that those people who don't have a specific partisan political or ideological agenda will understand what happened, how it happened, and I think they have confidence in CBS's credibility and my own. I do have a lifetime of reporting."
Burkett told CBS in an interview aired last night that he "threw out a name" of a bogus source because Rather's producer, Mary Mapes, had "pressured me to a point to reveal that source." Burkett said he had "insisted" that the memos "be authenticated" by CBS.
Mapes also put Burkett in touch with a senior official in John F. Kerry's presidential campaign after telling him that Burkett had been "helpful" on what was then CBS's upcoming story about Bush and the National Guard. The Kerry campaign confirmed her unusual go-between role but said Burkett provided no information about Bush.
What remains unclear is who provided the documents to Burkett and whether the memos were forged in a calculated effort to discredit Bush in the final weeks of his reelection effort. Rather said Burkett previously told CBS that the source was a former Guardsman who was out of the country and could not be reached by the network, and that the new source Burkett named is "one we cannot verify." CBS is still not saying that the memos are forgeries, only that the network cannot confirm they are authentic.
CBS News President Andrew Heyward acknowledged that "60 Minutes" had rushed the story to air on Sept. 8 -- five days after Mapes obtained the memos -- despite warnings from some of its document analysts that the memos may not have been produced on a 1970s government typewriter. "In retrospect, we shouldn't have used the documents, and we clearly should have spent more time and more effort to authenticate them," Heyward said.
CBS staff members, many of whom felt the apology was overdue, were relieved to discover that Burkett had admitted lying to the network, if only to spread the blame.
As Rather conceded, "The question is, why didn't you do it sooner? The story is true. I believed in the story. . . . What kind of reporter would I be -- what kind of person would I be -- if I put something on the air that I believed and then didn't stand behind it? At the first sign of pressure, you run, you cave, you fold? I don't do that."
At the same time, he said, "The fact that copies of the documents could be true was not enough. We needed to be able to prove they were authentic."
"Obviously," Rather added, "I would like to get the original documents if they still exist."
Heyward declined to say whether Rather or anyone else would be disciplined, or whether his news division would change its procedures, saying he wants to see the recommendations of outside investigators he plans to appoint.
Burkett once sued the Guard over medical benefits and previously contended that he had overheard Guard officials talking about sanitizing Bush's medical records -- a contention Texas Guard officials strongly dispute.
Under pressure from CBS, Burkett has now told the network, Rather said, that "I eventually gave you a name to protect the 'real' person."