Behind the firings at CBS

An independent investigation reveals that the team that produced the Bush National Guard story made shocking, rudimentary mistakes.

Topics: George W. Bush,

Anybody who still needs convincing that the decision late last year by CBS newsman Dan Rather to step down was related to his “60 Minutes Wednesday” report on President Bush’s National Guard service — a report tangled up in unverified documents — should read the independent 224-page review of the debacle issued Monday by the network.

The blunt assessment paints an at-times shocking portrait of an elite CBS news crew driven astray by a stampeding producer, Mary Mapes, who knew about flaws in the “60 Minutes Wednesday” report and yet hid them from her bosses. In the wake of the review, conducted by former Attorney General Dick Thornburgh and former Associated Press president Louis Boccardi, CBS fired Mapes and demanded the resignation of three senior CBS executives — senior vice president Betsy West, executive producer Josh Howard and his deputy, Mary Murphy. If Rather hadn’t already announced his pending departure, it would have been nearly impossible for the network to keep him on either. Even though Rather’s role was mostly symbolic — he was too caught up in hurricane coverage at the time to become immersed in the flawed research — simply being associated with the tainted report would have been too much for him to shoulder. (And Monday night he didn’t; Rather was a no-show for his anchor job at “CBS Evening News,” and Bob Schieffer filled in.)

As you recall, the “60 Minutes Wednesday” report, which aired Sept. 8, featured an exclusive interview with Ben Barnes, a former lieutenant governor of Texas and speaker of the Texas House of Representatives, who said that he helped get a young Bush into the Texas Air National Guard at the height of the Vietnam War. The report also included documents from 1972 allegedly written by the late Lt. Col. Jerry Killian, one of Bush’s former Guard commanders, in which he detailed for his own files Bush’s lack of participation and worried about pressure he was getting from his superiors to cover up for Bush. The memos were provided by retired Texas National Guard Lt. Col. Bill Burkett, who had previously charged that Bush’s Guard records had been “scrubbed” to hide any embarrassing information. Within hours of the broadcast, questions arose about the authenticity of the documents, reprising the same debate that had gone on inside CBS during the days leading up to the broadcast. Monday’s independent report could not say definitively whether the documents were forgeries but said that they did raise many questions.

The “60 Minutes Wednesday” segment not only backfired against the news organization itself but also had a political fallout, as the shoddy Guard piece, and the ensuing controversy, nicked Democratic hopeful Sen. John Kerry. Although the campaign had little or nothing to do with the report (there was a brief, albeit unwise, communication between the two camps on the eve of the story’s airing), CBS’s blunder effectively took off the table an uncomfortable topic for Bush — the fact that he had brazenly walked away from his Guard commitment for years at a time. News of the botched report also energized Bush supporters to wage war against CBS and spurred conservatives critics to declare open season on the so-called liberal media. Monday’s report found no proof that the Guard story was driven by partisan considerations.

According to the panel — as the CBS report refers to its authors — the defining mistake was the speed in which the network tried to prepare and broadcast the sensitive story. The panel concluded that it was Mapes who had pressed for the early showing, concerned that if CBS waited, the network would get scooped. But as with most critical moments in the controversy, Mapes’ version of events differs from that of her colleagues. She told the panel that she had been the one urging for more time, perhaps a Sept. 12 air date, to make sure the Guard story was sturdy, but that her boss had refused to postpone it.

But what still remains a puzzle is exactly why either Mapes or her CBS colleagues felt pushed to rush the story on the air. Back in September, the issue of sizable gaps in Bush’s Guard record had once again returned, with scores of newspapers chronicling — if rather tentatively — the obvious discrepancies in the president’s military records. But CBS had what nobody else did: an exclusive interview with Barnes and exclusive Guard documents. As the panel details, CBS held lengthy negotiations with Burkett and at one point discussed his request for a CBS consulting job; the network also promised to help him relocate if needed. So couldn’t CBS have been assured that Burkett would not share the documents with other news organizations? That’s a common agreement between journalists and sources on juicy exclusives. If they’d had his assurance, CBS would have felt no burning desire to air the segment so soon. Perhaps with more time to report, the network would have avoided its mistake.

CBS’s odyssey began on Aug. 23 when Mapes, a well-respected producer who had won kudos for breaking the Abu Ghraib prison scandal last spring, and who enjoyed a close working relationship with Rather, got word from a freelancer in Texas that Burkett might have explosive new documents regarding Bush’s Guard service, a story Mapes and Rather had reported on in 1999. That segment never aired. But by Sept. 2, Mapes had the documents — the Killian memos.

According to the panel, Burkett told Mapes he had received the memos in the mail from an old Texas Air National Guard colleague, a colleague Mapes never tracked down. Instead, she and her and associate Yvonne Miller (covering for a colleague on maternity leave) set out to authenticate the memos via handwriting and forensic experts. But as the panel notes, neither woman had any experience in the field, nor did CBS fact checkers: “Like Mapes and Miller, none of the individuals involved in the vetting process had any prior experience in the authentication of documents or handwriting analysis. None of these people sought to learn more about the document authentication process, including the limitations of having copies instead of originals. Had any of the vetters spoken to any of the examiners, they would have immediately realized the challenges posed in attempting to authenticate a copy of a document.”

Regardless, four days before air date, Mapes was feeling good about her exclusive. On Sept. 4, the Associated Press reported that documents that could have explained gaps in President Bush’s Guard service were missing from released military records that detailed his service in 1972 and 1973. That day Mapes forwarded the AP story to two of her bosses with the triumphant note, “I have some of these missing documents on my desk. Yikes!”

From Sept. 4 to Sept. 8, it was a mad dash to produce, record, write and vet the story. Late on Monday, Sept. 6, Mapes called Maj. Gen. Bobby Hodges, Killian’s commanding officer during the Bush years, and read him the contents of the memos. She says Hodges confirmed them, but Hodges says he did no such thing. (Both Mapes and Hodges have their own set of dueling, contemporaneous notes from the disputed call to support their claims.) As the panel noted, “This alleged confirmation by Major General Hodges started to march ’60 Minutes Wednesday’ into dangerous and ultimately unsustainable territory: the notion that since the content of the documents was felt to be true, demonstrating the authenticity of the documents became less important.”

On the night of Sept. 7, forensic experts were warning CBS about the Killian memos. Miller recalls receiving back-to-back calls with the bad news. The first came at 8:25 p.m. from Emily Will, who “objected to the use of the documents in the story” for several reasons, including the unlikelihood that the typefaces in the memos were in use in 1972. Soon a second document expert, Linda James, called Miller and echoed Will’s reservations, adding “that there were ‘unexplainable differences in the signatures’ and that she did not have enough documents to reach a conclusion.” As Miller told the panel, by Tuesday night “‘everything but the ceiling tiles’ was falling down on Mapes.” But Miller was hesitant to go over Mapes’ head and inform her bosses about the growing set of concerns, because it would have raised a “storm” internally.

(Even when controversy erupted over the report, the panel found that CBS refused to deal honestly with the forensic experts: “A respected typewriter expert, Peter Tytell, contacted Miller and Howard and explained in detail why he believed the Killian documents were likely fakes. His views were not pursued or analyzed in part because ’60 Minutes Wednesday’ was searching only for experts who would defend the September 8 Segment.”)

Despite the falling ceiling tiles on the night of Sept. 7, the next day Mapes thought she saw signs of hope when the White House, faced with the Killian memos for the first time, failed to raise any objections about their authenticity. CBS Washington reporter John Roberts, filling in for Rather, who could not fly into the capital because of inclement weather, traveled to the White House to interview communications director Dan Bartlett about the Killian memos. Bartlett had seen them just hours before, when CBS delivered copies to the White House. Prior to the interview, Mapes warned Roberts that Bartlett would likely question the memos’ authenticity. When Roberts reported back that the White House did not question them — Bartlett simply stuck to time-honored GOP talking points about how Bush had fulfilled his Guard duty — higher-ups at CBS interpreted Bartlett’s non-objection as confirmation. It was another costly, and mistaken, assumption. (Interestingly, last February Roberts independently interviewed Burkett — the source of the memos — and found him to be “unreliable.” Roberts told the panel that if he’d known “60 Minutes Wednesday” was relying on Burkett for its story, he would have raised concerns.)

After CBS got news that the White House didn’t object to the authenticity of the memos, they spent the rest of Sept. 8 vetting the story and previewing the segment for senior executives, including CBS president Andrew Heyward. “Surprisingly, Rather did not attend any of the pre-air screenings,” the panel noted. That afternoon, “60 Minutes Wednesday” producers were ordered to put together two different shows for that night’s broadcast — one with the Guard segment, one without it — just to allow for last-minute flexibility.

In retrospect, the panel concludes, Mapes withheld key information from top executives (“that none of the experts could authenticate the documents because they were copies”), making it impossible for them to make an informed decision about her reporting. Nonetheless, “sometime that afternoon, although it is not clear exactly when due to the differing recollections of those involved, the decision was made by West, Howard and Murphy to go with the entire segment.” All three, along with Mapes, no longer work for CBS.

In the aftermath, speculation has arisen that White House officials didn’t object when Bartlett was interviewed because they knew the memos were fake and wanted CBS to air a faulty report and then jump on its errors as a way to distract attention away from Bush’s actual Guard service. Roberts, however, told the panel that he believed that Bartlett stuck to the White House talking points because he hadn’t had much time to look at the Killian memos and wasn’t sure what the larger implications might be.

The greater Machiavellian theory from last September was that somehow Karl Rove, or another Republican operative, planted the documents in the first place, getting them to Burkett who passed them along, thinking they were real. Very early in the process, Mapes mentioned to a couple of people that she was concerned that the memos might have been planted by Republicans. But she soon overcame her reservations. Burkett refused to answer the panel’s questions in much detail, so questions still persist about the memos. He did eventually confess to CBS executives that the memos had not come from an old Texas Guard colleague but from a woman who had contacted him and arranged for an unknown man to deliver the Killian memos to Burkett at a Houston livestock show last March.

Unfortunately for CBS, it didn’t learn about that plot twist until a week after its Guard story had aired.

Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."

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