NO NEWS ORGANIZATION can watch the debacle unfolding at CBS without experiencing an institutional shudder. This newspaper endured its own painful episode 24 years ago with the publication of a fabricated front-page story about an 8-year-old heroin addict. In 1998 CNN was forced to retract a report that U.S. forces used lethal nerve gas on American defectors in Laos. More recently, the top editors of the New York Times and USA Today resigned after the disclosure that a reporter on each staff had repeatedly falsified stories. In other words, as much as we might wish otherwise, none of us in this business is immune from such wrenching mistakes, errors made all the more painful not just because they play out in full public view but because of their impact on the trust we seek to build with readers or viewers.
Now CBS has joined the list. In its haste to get a hot story about President Bush's National Guard service on the air, the network, according to reporting by The Post's Howard Kurtz, Michael Dobbs and James V. Grimaldi, brushed aside serious warnings about supposed Guard documents expressed by its own outside experts. Such casualness in the face of concerns would be irresponsible whatever the subject; on such a fraught topic, about the president of the United States, and in the heat of a reelection campaign, it's hard to understand. When bloggers and then other media outlets quickly raised doubts about the documents' authenticity, CBS erred even more with a defensive, even pugilistic response. News anchor Dan Rather defiantly rejected calls for an internal inquiry, cast doubt on the motivations of those questioning the documents as "partisan political operatives" and, in an interview with the New York Observer, compared the episode with "the heat" CBS took "during the McCarthy time, during Vietnam, during civil rights, during Watergate."
Now Mr. Rather and CBS News President Andrew Heyward have apologized and called for an outside review. That's to their credit, though it doesn't answer every question. The source of the apparently fraudulent documents remains unclear; the Bush campaign now insinuates that the John F. Kerry team may have been involved, while the Kerry camp says it wasn't. Meanwhile, we continue to entertain the notion that there are subjects more important in this presidential campaign than even Swift boats or the Alabama National Guard.