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Mary Mapes's Darkest Hour

The '60 Minutes' Producer Finds Herself Quite a Story

By Jennifer Frey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 4, 2004; Page C01

Mary Mapes received a care package from two of her best girlfriends the other day. What to send the woman in the eye of the CBS News firestorm? Wine, of course. And chocolates. A romance novel, amusingly titled "Texas Glory." Some Band-Aids to soothe life's little boo-boos. Tums.

Also tucked inside was some under-eye concealer, to hide those awful dark circles that come with nights of sleep lost to worry. Oh, and a do-rag, the better to go incognito on runs to the grocery store.

CBS News producer Mary Mapes in 1999 when she refused to release transcripts of an interview to a Jasper, Tex., judge. (David J. Phillip -- AP)

"We wanted to make her laugh," says Mickey Flowers, Mapes's friend for more than 20 years. "I figured she might need a disguise, just for the peace of mind."

It worked. Mapes laughed, she told the other girlfriend, for the first time in days. Does she need the disguise? Not necessarily. As the producer of the "60 Minutes" segment at the center of the network's very public crisis, Mapes has spent much of the last month under fire, her career and once well-burnished reputation hanging in the balance. Her colleague and partner Dan Rather has been the public face of the story critical of President Bush's National Guard service but based, as it turned out, on apparently bogus documents. But Mapes, 48, was the driving force behind it.

In the face of public calls for his resignation, Rather said Saturday that he had no intention of stepping down over the controversy. Mapes, meanwhile, has not said a word, though questions have been raised inside and outside CBS News headquarters: Is she the one at fault? Is hers the head that's going to roll?

Publicly, Mapes has been defined, in turn, either as a spectacular producer who made a spectacular screw-up or as an overzealous journalist with a political agenda. In the main photograph of her in circulation, she appears wan, rattled. It was taken in 1999, outside a Jasper, Tex., courthouse. The sinus infection she was suffering from that day paled in comparison with a judge's threats to jail her for refusing to release transcripts of an interview.

"Mary has not been portrayed as a human being," says Jim Murphy, executive producer of "CBS Evening News With Dan Rather." "Everything from the deer-caught-in-the-headlights photo to the political operative stuff -- that's not the Mary we know."

Just months ago, Mapes was the first to obtain photographs depicting the abuse of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib, a major coup for the network. Murphy, though he has never been her direct supervisor, knows Mapes best from the "harrowing" eight-day trip they took with Rather into Afghanistan in the days after U.S. forces entered Kabul in 2001. Murphy says she was the best kind of companion on such an assignment: capable, unruffled and able to keep the mood light, no matter the circumstance.

For veteran correspondent Vicki Mabrey, Mapes is the producer she desperately wanted to work with as a young reporter in Dallas, not to mention the expert on where to get the best tortilla soup -- or anything else, for that matter -- in town. For Bob McNamara, another veteran correspondent who still works in the CBS Dallas bureau, Mapes is the fearless journalist who went into the heart of the Los Angeles riots after the Rodney King verdict to get the story.

Rather, who long has relied on her judgment, says Mapes has his "respect" and his "friendship."

"Mary Mapes earned my trust and the trust of her colleagues with years of excellent, fearless reporting," Rather said in a statement provided to The Post. "She is tireless in pursuit of a story and she has proven herself many times."

But that woman -- described by those who have worked with her as "funny," "smart" and "very talented" -- has been silent through all of this. Far from CBS News headquarters on West 57th Street in Manhattan, Mapes has remained at her Dallas home -- her base while working on "60 Minutes" -- with her husband and 7-year-old son. She declined to be interviewed for this article through her husband, Mark Wrolstad, a staff writer for the Dallas Morning News. Wrolstad describes much of what has been said and written about his wife and her actions as "inaccuracies and mischaracterizations," but declines to go into details.

Former U.S. attorney general Dick Thornburgh and Louis Boccardi, the ex-CEO of the Associated Press, are leading an independent investigation commissioned by CBS into the incident, and CBS News has asked employees involved not to discuss the situation publicly in the interim. Mapes, Wrolstad says, wants to comply.

"Mary is a strong producer with the highest standards and integrity and sense of fairness," says Wrolstad. "And she's also part of a team. She has always counted on the strong leadership of her news supervisors. And everyone, I'm sure, knows that they need to address questions in the independent review. . . . Sometimes you have to wait for the right time and place to try to get people to hear the true details."

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