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Howard Kurtz Media Notes

The Whacking of CBS

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 11, 2005; 10:23 AM

You can read what I have to say about CBS/Rather/National Guard here, and an analysis of its place in the political wars here.

A "scathing report," says the Wall Street Journal. "A crushing blow to its credibility," says the New York Times. "The network was forced to backtrack," says the Los Angeles Times. "Some outside observers said CBS did not go far enough," says USA Today. "A scathing independent postmortem that describes the story's journalistic failings," says the Boston Globe. "Shoddy, corner-cutting journalism," says the New York Post.

_____More Media Notes_____
The Making of a Red-State Liberal (washingtonpost.com, Jan 10, 2005)
Department of Self-Defense (washingtonpost.com, Jan 7, 2005)
Inauguration Under Fire? (washingtonpost.com, Jan 6, 2005)
Pretty Ugly, Pretty Fast (washingtonpost.com, Jan 5, 2005)
Tsunami Politics (washingtonpost.com, Jan 4, 2005)
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And the full report by Dick Thornburgh and Lou Boccardi is posted at CBSNews.com.

Now let's check in on what everyone else -- and there's no shortage of opinion-slingers out there -- has to say:

Andrew Sullivan:

"It's pretty damning stuff. Not a whole lot of news in it, though, from my summary reading. Terminating Mapes is serious accountability. Here's the real money quote:

"The panel finds that once serious questions were raised, the defense of the segment became more rigid and emphatic, and that virtually no attempt was made to determine whether the questions raised had merit.

"No attempt to ask questions? Wasn't Rather part of this defense? And wasn't it relevant that critics were accused of partisanship? Why the knee-jerk partisan response? What interests me about the summary is that all sorts of sins can be attributed to journalists -- rushing a story to print, not following rudimentary fact-checking rules, refusing to re-check after questions were raised, etc, etc. But the one thing the report is clear about is that no political bias ever influenced the process. Even when you have Mapes calling Lockhart, the report insists that this created 'the appearance of political bias.' (My italics.) Others will parse the report more carefully, I'm sure. But the refusal to acknowledge this blind spot is not encouraging."

John Hinderaker, the Powerline blogger who was among the first to blow the whistle on the apparently bogus 30-year-old memos:

"In general, the Thornburgh report is better than I expected. It criticizes 60 Minutes harshly, and is a treasure trove of factual information. However, while the report is damning, the question is whether it is damning enough. In two key respects, the report walks up to the precipice, but declines to jump.

"First, it directly addresses the question whether the 60 Minutes report was motivated by political bias against President Bush. The panel's conclusion is at page 211: 'The Panel does not find a basis to accuse those who investigated, produced, vetted or aired the segment of having a political bias.' But the grounds set forth in support of this conclusion are unpersuasive, and the authors completely fail to address the evidence of political bias that their own report contains, especially with respect to Mary Mapes.

"In fact, the report contains repeated indications that Mary Mapes, in particular, dripped with anti-Bush venom. On July 23, Michael Smith, a freelance journalist in Texas who was working on the story along with Mapes, sent her an email that began: 'I am close to something that the Bushies are worried about . . . ' Mapes responded: 'I desperately want to talk to you. . . . Do NOT underestimate how much I want this story.' . . .

"It's also worth noting that both Mapes and Dan Rather continue to defend the 60 Minutes report, and to claim that the documents are authentic. Rather says he believes in the documents because 'the facts are right on the money.' Given what we now know, this statement is delusional. The Thornburgh report does an excellent job of analyzing the content of the fake documents, and showing that they are, in many respects, at odds with reality as we know it from other sources."

Tim Rutten of the Los Angeles Times on the bias issue:

"Just as Rather and his colleagues were unable to prove their allegations that official favoritism allowed Bush to avoid fulfilling his military obligations, so the network's outside investigators were unable to satisfactorily answer the scandal's central question: What part, if any, did political bias play in this debacle?

"Of all the questions facing the independent investigators -- former Republican U.S. Atty. Gen. Richard L. Thornburgh and Louis Boccardi, retired chief executive of Associated Press -- none was more difficult, nor more crucial than this. The allegation that CBS News' conduct in this matter was not merely incompetent but also motivated by politics is the crux of the issue. . . .

"Unfortunately, while the 224-page Thornburgh-Boccardi report meticulously documents the details of what already is known -- that CBS ignored the basic journalistic practices and its own policies to rush the segment onto the air -- it adds little of value to our understanding of whether political bias was at work at any level of the process."

Newsday's Verne Gay on Dan's role:

"Rather was off the air last night, resting (his spokeswoman said) after a long flight back from Asia where he had covered the tsunami tragedy. But the question of his fate has undoubtedly floated around in his brainpan for weeks.

"On a human level, yesterday's report had a Shakespearean pathos to it. The report's overall portrayal was of someone who was so stretched that he didn't know whether he was coming or going -- and the report often seemed to suggest that he was doing both. Exhausted after covering the Republican National Convention in New York, drained after rushing back from covering Hurricane Frances in Florida, Rather only seemed to vaguely recall certain conversations, or completely forget others. He never even saw the original report before it went on the air -- but stubbornly defended the '60 Minutes Wednesday' report on 'Evening News' a couple of nights later."

Salon's Eric Boehlert:

"Anybody who still needs convincing that the decision by longtime CBS newsman Dan Rather late last year to step down was related to his '60 Minutes Wednesday' report in September on President Bush's National Guard service -- a report tangled up in unverified documents -- should read the independent, 224-page review of the debacle issued Monday by the network."

Rather has insisted to me and others that he planned to step down anyway but acknowledged that the timing was an effort to get out in front of the report.

"The blunt assessment paints an at-times shocking portrait of an elite CBS news crew driven astray by a stampeding producer, Mary Mapes, who knew about flaws in the '60 Minutes Wednesday' report and yet hid them from her bosses...

"But what still remains a puzzle is exactly why either Mapes or her CBS colleagues felt pushed to rush the story on the air. Back in September, the issue of sizable gaps in Bush's Guard record had once again returned, with scores of newspapers chronicling -- if rather tentatively -- the obvious discrepancies in the president's military records."

Jeff Jarvis at the Buzz Machine:

"I see that the report is calling for more commissions and committees and all that -- which is just the wrong thing to do: It puts yet more distance between the journalists and the public they are supposed to serve. They should be doing just the opposite: tearing down the walls, making journalists responsible for interacting with the public.

"This is bigger than Dan Rather. This is bigger than CBS News. This is about the news and the new relationship -- the conversation -- journalism must learn to have with the public, or the public will go have it without them."

The headline on Jonathan Last's Weekly Standard piece is "Whitewash":

"Where did the documents come from? We are told Bill Burkett informed CBS that a woman named 'Lucy Ramirez' arranged a drop of the documents to him. We are also told that Burkett declined to cooperate with the panel. And that's that. But what of Lucy Ramirez? Who is she? What was her role? Does she even exist? We don't know. Ramirez is referenced seven times (on pages 35, 210, and 211). Here is the report's final mention of her: '[CBS News, after the story aired] sent personnel into the field to attempt to find Ramirez and thus possibly to confirm the new account. This effort proved unsuccessful.' Exit Lucy Ramirez, stage left.

"Unlike the New York Times, which painstakingly re-reported Jayson Blair's stories and aired all of the factual dirty laundry, the Thornburgh-Boccardi panel seems to have done little investigating of its own. Were the documents legitimate? The panel seems to have made some minimal consultation with experts about the documents in question, but its conclusions could not be clearer: 'The Panel reaches no definitive conclusion as to whether the Killian documents are authentic . . . it may never be possible for anyone to authenticate or discredit the documents.' (page 134) And 'Again, the Panel stresses that it is making no finding as to the authenticity of the Killian documents.' (page 150) The conclusion is summed up neatly by Les Moonves who, responding to the report, allowed that 'documents could not be authenticated from Xeroxed copies.'

"But note the language: You may not be able to authenticate a document from a Xerox copy, but surely you can discredit it. If, for instance, I handed you a Xerox copy of a note purporting to be an email from Saint Paul to Saint Peter, you could, after careful study, conclude that it was a forgery. If, that is, you were concerned with such matters."

In other Media Scandal news -- it's getting to be a whole genre -- check out this Dow Jones report about online stock shenanigans:

"A former columnist for CBS MarketWatch.com will pay more than $540,000 to settle charges he used his investment newsletter to make profits by promoting stock that he owned.

"Thom Calandra, who wrote the Calandra Report for the company now known as MarketWatch Inc. (MKTW), settled the Securities and Exchange Commission charges without admitting or denying wrongdoing.

"The SEC said Calandra made more than $400,000 in illegal profits by buying shares of thinly traded small-cap companies, writing favorable profiles of the companies, and then selling most of his shares after his columns had driven up the price of the securities.

"'Calandra betrayed his readers' trust by surreptitiously using his newsletter, The Calandra Report, to bolster his personal profits,' said Helane Morrison, who heads the SEC's San Francisco office, in a statement. 'Calandra's readers were entitled to know about his trading activity.'

"Calandra's fine consists of a $125,000 civil penalty and $416,000 representing the return of wrongly earned profits, plus interest, to investors.

"The SEC had also alleged Calandra failed to disclose that he received money from a stock promoter affiliated with two mining companies profiled in his reports. A lawyer for Calandra couldn't immediately be located for comment."

As for Armstrong Williams' $240K contract from the Education Department to flack for Bush's No Child law, the Nation's David Corn has this tantalizing exchange with the conservative commentator in a Fox green room:

"Williams violated a PR rule: he got off-point. 'This happens all the time,' he told me. 'There are others.' Really? I said. Other conservative commentators accept money from the Bush administration? I asked Williams for names. 'I'm not going to defend myself that way,' he said. The issue right now, he explained, was his own mistake. Well, I said, what if I call you up in a few weeks, after this blows over, and then ask you? No, he said.

"Does Williams really know something about other rightwing pundits? Or was he only trying to minimize his own screw-up with a momentary embrace of a trumped-up everybody-does-it defense? I could not tell. But if the IG at the Department of Education or any other official questions Williams, I suggest he or she ask what Williams meant by this comment."

Meanwhile, says Editor & Publisher, "spot-check of the newspapers that had been publishing Armstrong Williams' column indicates he may have a tough time self-syndicating, as he told E&P Friday he hopes to do." Several editors say they want no part of Williams.

And I wonder whether this report in the Financial Times will give the Bush White House any ideas:

"The electoral group headed by Iyad Allawi, interim Iraqi prime minister, yesterday handed cash to journalists to try to ensure coverage of its press conferences, in a throwback to Ba'athist-era patronage ahead of parliamentary elections on January 30.

"After a meeting held by Mr Allawi's campaign alliance in west Baghdad, reporters, most from the Arabic-language press, were invited upstairs where each was offered a 'gift' of a $100 bill in an envelope.

"Many of the journalists accepted the cash, equal to about half the starting monthly salary for a reporter at an Iraqi news-paper, and one jokingly recalled how the former regime of Saddam Hussein had also lavished perks on favoured reporters."

That's ridiculous, I know. You'd have to pay American reporters at least a couple of thousand.

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