Journalists Who Won't Give Up

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 21, 2005; 12:36 PM

Investigative reporters are, by their nature, dogged, tenacious and deeply suspicious, crashing through official roadblocks as they chase the most elusive stories.

Some of them continue that quest long after their support evaporates, their evidence crumbles and even their employers abandon them.

Mary Mapes, the CBS producer fired over the journalistic fiasco involving President Bush's National Guard service, is the latest in a line of lonely crusaders, defending her work more than a year after it was widely discredited. Dan Rather may have apologized for the story, an independent panel may have denounced it and CBS News may have criticized her "disregard for journalistic standards," but Mapes argues in her new book that the critics are either politically motivated, cowardly or just plain wrong.

In challenging those who have questioned her work -- including The Washington Post and this reporter, who is cited in the book for a triple-bylined news story recounting the mess -- Mapes displays the relentless qualities that all good diggers share. But she also opens herself up to the charge that her obsession has clouded her judgment.

Mapes is right that the purported 30-year-old memos by Bush's long-dead squadron commander have not been proven to be forgeries, but is that the standard for broadcasting a serious charge? The documents have not been proven real, either, and endless debates about superscript and proportional spacing are not likely to change that.

In the same week that Mapes's "Truth and Duty" was published, Judith Miller was forced out of the New York Times after years of controversy. Miller, too, had lost the support of her news organization -- her executive editor, while praising her past contributions, had accused her of misleading the paper in the Valerie Plame leak investigation -- and her take-no-prisoners style had alienated many of her colleagues.

Unlike Mapes, Miller finally acknowledged, more than a year after the fact, that her stories on Iraq and weapons of mass destruction had been wrong. But she expressed no regrets about this, saying matter-of-factly that "if your sources are wrong, you are wrong." There was "lingering fury" toward her, Miller told CNN's Larry King, because some of her stories "had turned out to be based on faulty intelligence."

Not that Miller was a passive conduit. When the Army unit with which she was embedded in 2003 was ordered to pull back from its search for illegal weapons, Miller wrote military officials: "I intend to write about this decision in the NY Times to send a successful team back home just as progress on WMD is being made." The order was later rescinded.

Miller deserves credit for her willingness to go to jail rather than testify about her conversations with I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby. Yet she continues to defend her decision to leave jail 85 days later and testify, despite criticism that this undercut her original stance. She has accused editors at the paper of "unsubstantiated innuendo" and "ugly" and "inaccurate" criticism -- a turbulent end to a career in which she was part of a Pulitzer Prize-winning team.

April Oliver, a former CNN producer, also wound up at war with her ex-bosses. She sued the network in 1999 over its retraction of her story alleging that U.S. soldiers used lethal nerve gas in Laos during the Vietnam War. Oliver and a second producer were fired, and correspondent Peter Arnett reprimanded, when CNN and Time apologized for the "Operation Tailwind" story.

Just as Mapes has denounced the independent CBS inquiry co-chaired by former attorney general Richard Thornburgh, Oliver assailed CNN's outside investigation, headed by attorney Floyd Abrams, as a whitewash. One of Oliver's sources, retired Adm. Thomas Moorer, later denied the story. Oliver wound up suing another of her sources, retired Maj. Gen. John Singlaub, who in turn sued her and the news outlets. Oliver, who eventually settled her suit against CNN, told The Washington Post Magazine that the military had "gotten to" some of her sources.

Perhaps the saddest case involved Gary Webb, a San Jose Mercury News reporter who suggested in a 1996 series that the CIA knew a drug ring linked to the Nicaraguan contras had been selling crack in Los Angeles. When the "Dark Alliance" series caused an uproar, the Mercury News editor concluded after a review (and critical pieces in other major newspapers) that it "fell short" of the paper's standards. Webb, who called the findings "bizarre" and "nauseating," left the paper after being demoted. He committed suicide last year.

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