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Howard Kurtz Media Notes

CBS, Sitting Between Fiasco And Fallout

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 22, 2004; Page C01

When CNN aired an unsubstantiated story six years ago on U.S. military misconduct during the Vietnam War, chief executive Tom Johnson apologized, appointed an independent panel to investigate, fired two producers and eventually correspondent Peter Arnett -- and twice offered to resign himself.

When NBC's "Dateline" staged a fiery truck crash in 1993, the network apologized, appointed an independent panel, fired three producers and, three weeks later, ousted News Division President Michael Gartner.

CBS News anchor Dan Rather (Suzanne Plunkett -- AP)

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"You have to take swift and decisive action," NBC News President Neal Shapiro, who took over "Dateline" after the debacle, said yesterday. "You have to have significant reform come out of it. We changed the personnel and the process."

The question now for CBS is whether an outside investigation will help the network repair its tattered reputation after its story charging that President Bush received favorable treatment in the National Guard -- and whether any high-level heads will roll.

CBS "clearly will benefit from such an independent review," said Johnson, who has retired from CNN. But he said the network had waited too long after the Sept. 8 story: "By prolonging it and trying to investigate themselves, it created unnecessary criticism of CBS."

The outside investigation has become a ritual of the media business after a big, full-blown, embarrassing blunder. CBS had resisted such a move for nearly two weeks until Dan Rather apologized Monday for reporting the "60 Minutes" segment on Bush based on documents the network now admits it cannot authenticate.

CBS News President Andrew Heyward said Monday that he hopes the panel, which he has not yet named, will report in "weeks, not months" and that he is "open to any recommendations. . . . When mistakes are made, the healthy thing for news organizations to do is to analyze why."

The most vulnerable employee at CBS would seem to be Rather's producer, Mary Mapes, who not only obtained the discredited documents but also put her source, former National Guardsman Bill Burkett, in touch with Joe Lockhart, senior adviser to John Kerry's presidential campaign. But it remains unclear whether senior executives from Heyward on down, who approved the story, could also be in jeopardy, and how the network will deal with some critics' calls to oust Rather, whose contract has two more years to run.

Bob Zelnick, a former ABC correspondent who now chairs Boston University's journalism department, faulted CBS's apology, saying: "There's one word I haven't heard so far: retraction. They've yielded inch by inch on the authenticity of the documents and the reliability of the source, but without the documents there was no story." Until CBS retracts the story and apologizes directly to Bush, "it mitigates the potential beneficial effect of an independent board."

The risk in seeking an aggressive outside probe -- the only kind likely to have public credibility -- is that the findings can sting. USA Today, after a weeklong silence, named an outside panel to investigate what turned out to be a series of fabricated stories by star correspondent Jack Kelley. The panel, headed by founding editor John Seigenthaler, said that the paper ignored numerous warnings and that a "virus of fear" deterred many staffers from reporting problems with Kelley's work. Editor Karen Jurgensen resigned, as did her managing editor, and the executive editor was reassigned.

USA Today is facing new questions after acknowledging yesterday that its reporters had also obtained the disputed Guard memos from Burkett, right after the "60 Minutes" broadcast. The paper said that Burkett has now admitted he lied to USA Today, as well as CBS, about where he got the documents and that it is identifying him because he agreed to an on-the-record interview.

Executive Editor John Hillkirk said USA Today would not have published the documents without the "60 Minutes" story, at least not without further checking. "It's unfortunate Burkett chose to lie about the source of the documents," he said. As soon as questions were raised by other news organizations, Hillkirk said, "we jumped into that aggressively. . . . We never did vouch for the documents' authenticity."

The paper's Sept. 9 story said that Bush's Guard commander felt pressure to "sugar coat" his evaluation, according to "newly disclosed documents" that were "obtained by USA Today" and "also reported" by "60 Minutes."

After New York Times reporter Jayson Blair was exposed as a serial fabricator last year, executive editor Howell Raines and managing editor Gerald Boyd were forced out amid heavy staff criticism, and a panel composed mainly of Times employees -- plus three outsiders -- was named to scrutinize the debacle. The new editor, Bill Keller, adopted the panel's recommendations while decrying "a climate of isolation, intimidation, favoritism and unrelenting pressure." He appointed the first ombudsman in the paper's history and a standards editor, and ordered limits on the use of anonymous sources.

Structural changes often follow such reviews. When CNN's Johnson went through the "very painful" process of retracting the "Operation Tailwind" story, which charged that U.S. troops used nerve gas during the Vietnam War, he said he named an executive vice president for standards and practices and tightened the vetting process for investigative stories.

CBS News also created the job of vice president for news practices -- in 1982, when an internal probe found violations of its standards over a Vietnam documentary that led to a lawsuit by retired Gen. William Westmoreland, which was settled without payment.

In the "Dateline" fiasco, NBC not only abandoned a brief defense of its story involving a rigged crash test but also settled a lawsuit by General Motors, the manufacturer of the vehicle in question. Shapiro said the network created a department of standards and practices and added new layers of executives so that "different sets of eyeballs" are scrutinizing every story.

"There's always a fear of groupthink," Shapiro said. "People get a story and they love it so much they may have blinders on."

Howard Kurtz hosts CNN's weekly media program.

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