CBS News's reporting of a fiercely disputed story on President Bush's National Guard service contained "considerable and fundamental deficiencies," an independent panel said yesterday, prompting the network to oust three top executives and Mary Mapes, Dan Rather's producer on the September piece.
The investigators faulted Rather, who has already announced plans to step down as anchor in March, for being overenthusiastic in pursuit of the story and overzealous in defending it after serious questions surfaced about whether the 30-year-old memos he was citing were bogus. CBS rushed the story on the air at the height of the presidential campaign despite having "failed miserably" to authenticate the documents and made false and misleading statements in defending the story afterward, said the panel led by former attorney general Dick Thornburgh and former Associated Press chief executive Louis Boccardi.
"There's no question it's a black eye for CBS," network President Leslie Moonves, who hired the panel, said in an interview. "But in the steps we're taking, we've tried to move quickly. It's a blow, but it's not fatal. . . . We're getting rid of the people we think were to blame. Ninety-nine percent of the stories we do are accurate and solid."
The 224-page report, which blames the network's rush on a "myopic zeal" to be first with the Bush story, amounts to a stunning repudiation of the newsgathering process of CBS News and the midweek spinoff of one of its crown jewels, "60 Minutes." It also tarnishes the reputation of Rather, its anchor since 1981, who would have faced considerable pressure to step down had he not already agreed to relinquish the anchor chair, although he plans to continue as a correspondent for "60 Minutes." Rather, who was unavailable for comment yesterday, has apologized for his role in the story alleging that Bush received favorable treatment in the Texas Air National Guard.
An Absence of Bias
Following the exposure of serial fabrications in the last 18 months by Jayson Blair at the New York Times and Jack Kelley at USA Today, the report delivers yet another blow to the credibility of a major news organization, perhaps the highest-profile indictment to date given Rather's international fame and the fact that his target was the president.
The only glimmer of good news for CBS was the panel's finding that no one involved had a "political bias" against Bush, as conservatives have frequently charged in criticizing Rather. But the panel said many of CBS's sources, particularly former Texas National Guard official Bill Burkett, had "an anti-Bush political agenda."
Thornburgh told reporters that Rather, who had just returned from covering the Republican convention and a Florida hurricane, "played a somewhat minimal role in the actual production of the piece and . . . never even saw the segment before it aired." He said Rather was "more culpable" afterward, that he "exaggerated and somewhat misrepresented the findings of [a document] expert and mischaracterized some of the corroborating evidence."
The highest-ranking person let go was Senior Vice President Betsy West, who supervises CBS's prime-time news shows. Also jettisoned were Josh Howard, executive producer of "60 Minutes Wednesday," and his deputy, Mary Murphy. Left untouched was CBS News President Andrew Heyward, who approved the Sept. 8 piece hours before it aired.
Moonves said Heyward gave explicit instructions to his deputies not to let the program's staff "stampede us in any way" but that the necessary vetting "wasn't done. Andrew's only fault was that he trusted his lieutenants to carry out his orders."
As for Rather, who had broken the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal with Mapes, Moonves said: "When Mary Mapes said these documents are true and her sources were accurate and unimpeachable, Dan took that at face value. He trusted Mary."