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Rather Admits 'Mistake in Judgment'

Burkett has urged Democratic activists to wage "war" against Republican "dirty tricks," and contacted former Democratic senator Max Cleland (Ga.) in August to offer information to the Kerry campaign.

White House communications director Dan Bartlett said CBS's admission "begs the question as to where the documents came from." He noted that Kerry campaign manager Mary Beth Cahill made a congratulatory call to former Texas lieutenant governor Ben Barnes, a Kerry fundraiser, after Barnes appeared in the same "60 Minutes" segment. Barnes had nothing to do with the documents.

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.

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Video: The Post's Michael Dobbs talks about the flap over CBS and documents pertaining to President Bush's National Guard service.

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"There seemed to be a lot of high-level interest in the Kerry campaign and among Democrats, and the question is, was there more than just interest? Were there any high-level contacts?" Bartlett asked. White House spokesman Scott McClellan said Burkett was a "discredited" source well before he spoke to "60 Minutes."

Kerry senior adviser Joe Lockhart said that after receiving a call from Mapes on Sept. 4, he called Burkett, who urged the campaign to be more aggressive in responding to attacks on Kerry's Vietnam War record. Lockhart said he is "99.9 percent sure" that Burkett did not mention Bush and the Guard, and accused the Bush campaign of making "baseless charges" of Democratic involvement. Burkett told USA Today that his contact with Lockhart was part of an "understanding" with CBS in exchange for providing the documents.

Critics seized on CBS's acknowledgment of failure. Conservative activist Bill Bennett, whose Salem Radio Network show reaches 100 stations, said that "bias isn't the point. This is corruption. Corruption is when you don't adhere to basic and fundamental standards. They so much wanted it to be true. . . . They were doing what they accused Richard Nixon of doing: stonewalling."

Even liberal columnists are not defending Rather and CBS. "They've handled this about as badly as could be imagined," Boston Phoenix media writer Dan Kennedy said. "They were way too late in acknowledging there may be problems with this. The short-term damage is just horrendous. You have a large percentage of the public believing -- falsely, I would argue -- that the media are suffused with liberal bias, and this just plays right into that."

Media critic Michael Wolff, who writes for Vanity Fair, said CBS executives "are unacquainted with the reality of the modern news business -- that if you're exposed on any point, you're going to get ripped apart." But he said he believes the underlying allegations reported by CBS -- that Bush had received favorable treatment in the Guard -- are accurate.

Alex S. Jones, director of Harvard's Shorenstein media center, disagreed, saying it would be a "mistake" for CBS to keep defending the underlying story. "To the extend that Dan Rather steps up and takes the bullet, his credibility will be salvaged," Jones said. "If he is perceived as ultimately not willing to take responsibility, that will be more damaging for him."

Jones added that "somebody's head is going to have to roll," but that it was unlikely to be Rather's because "I don't expect the anchor to be the guy who understands every aspect of the story."

In a further sign of the turmoil at CBS, some staff members at the original Sunday "60 Minutes" say their program has been unfairly blemished by the Wednesday spin-off, which began in 1999 as "60 Minutes II."

"I think it is safe to say that the overwhelming feeling among correspondents and producers on the Sunday program is that we would not have made the same mistakes," correspondent Steve Kroft said. He added: "It's hard to know at this point exactly what went wrong, because the Wednesday show is an entirely separate broadcast with entirely different people, and brand-new management. But something clearly went wrong with the process."

Josh Howard, who runs "60 Minutes" Wednesday, said producer Mapes had not told him that Burkett was the source and that this was "probably one of many things I would do differently next time." As for Burkett's charge that Mapes, who has declined all interview requests, pushed him too hard, Howard said: "If anything, we didn't push hard enough."

Rather, who got into an on-air shouting match with Vice President George H.W. Bush during the 1988 presidential campaign, dismissed criticism that he bears a grudge against the family. "I believe overwhelmingly, people, even people who don't like me, know I'm fiercely independent and I'm not motivated by politics," he said. "I'm motivated by news."

Heyward, noting that other news organizations had restored their reputation after journalistic embarrassments, said he does not think the mistake will be a "permanent blot" on CBS's reputation.

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