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Mary Mapes's Darkest Hour

How did this woman -- who, by most accounts, was one of the most trusted and talented producers at CBS News -- end up in this place of criticism and uncertainty?

It starts with the story in question, which aired Sept. 8, on the Wednesday edition of "60 Minutes." In that report, Rather charged that President Bush had received preferential treatment in the National Guard in the early 1970s, and used as evidence copies of memos that had been provided to the network by a confidential source. Almost immediately, both the validity of the memos and the credibility of the source -- who later would be revealed as retired Texas National Guard officer Bill Burkett -- came under attack. After days of defending the story, Rather made an on-air apology on Sept. 20, stating that a "mistake in judgment" had been made, and that Burkett had lied to the network. CBS did not go so far as to acknowledge the documents as forgeries; instead, it simply stated that it couldn't confirm they were not.


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)

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Coming in the heat of a presidential campaign, the story sparked a partisan firestorm that was further inflamed when Joe Lockhart, a high-ranking strategist in the Kerry campaign, told reporters that Mapes had called to put him in touch with Burkett. Both Lockhart and Burkett have since said that their conversation had absolutely nothing to do with the documents or CBS's report, but the call had its own reverberations. In the world of journalism, it is a distinct no-no to take any action that could advance (or be perceived as advancing) any political agenda. Mapes was already under scrutiny because she had worked the National Guard story for five years, found Burkett, obtained the documents from him and engaged the experts charged with vetting the documents for signs of alteration or forgery. There were, of course, higher-ups who greenlighted the story, including "60 Minutes" executive producer Josh Howard, and Andrew Heyward, the president of CBS News. But at CBS, the suggestion has been made that Mapes is considered so good, everyone -- including Rather -- felt confident trusting her.

After the Lockhart phone call became public, the attacks became more pointed. The question was no longer: Did she make a mistake on the story? It was: Did she flagrantly break the rules? No one knew what to make of it, but everyone seemed to think it was bad news.

The worst of it came when Mapes's estranged father gave an interview to John Carlson, a conservative talk show host at KVI radio in Seattle, who once worked with Mapes at television station KIRO, also in Seattle.

"I'm really ashamed of my daughter, what she's become," said Don Mapes, who had a falling-out with his daughter years ago for undisclosed reasons. "She went into journalism with an ax to grind, that is, to promote feminism -- and radical feminism, I might say -- and liberalism."

Mapes's close friend Lisa Cohen, who lives in Seattle, was horrified.

"They were throwing anybody up there," she says. "People who don't know her. Her father, whom she hasn't spoken to in 15 years, just because he shares the same last name. Anything to throw fuel on the fire. "

Cohen, Flowers and Mapes all met at KIRO in the 1980s, when Mapes was a twenty-something producer trying to make her mark in the world of investigative journalism. She had grown up on a strawberry farm in Burlington, Wash., one of four sisters. She studied communications and political science at the University of Washington but never finished; instead, Wrolstad says, she started working in journalism.

Even in her early years in the business, Mapes was driven, passionate and unafraid of ruffling feathers. Cohen remembers her clashing repeatedly with the KIRO news director -- writing a scathing memo when he hired actors to play journalists in an ad for the station, bristling at publicity stunts she found journalistically distasteful.

"We had a very portly sportscaster," Cohen remembers, "and the news director thought it would be great publicity if we sent him out in a Santa Claus suit to show up live on people's doorsteps to give them one little bag of groceries. One little bag. Mary was assigned to it. She was horrified. She told him he couldn't do that, that it was unfair to these people, that they were giving them no warning, that it would embarrass them. If he was going to do something, she wanted him to do something meaningful."

To Cohen, that was classic Mapes: principled, unafraid to challenge, always willing to work harder than anyone else.

It was at KIRO that Mapes met Wrolstad. He was a reporter, she was a producer. Together they worked on investigative projects, including the Green River serial murder case, which was at last solved earlier this year. They married in 1987 after dating for years.

In 1989, Mapes was offered a job with CBS in Dallas. Wrolstad followed, and eventually became a senior reporter on the metro staff of the Dallas Morning News.


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