Sadly, if not surprisingly, the investigation of the controversial "60 Minutes II" broadcast about George W. Bush's National Guard Service ended with the resignations of three veteran news executives, the firing of producer Mary Mapes, the shaming of anchor Dan Rather, and a black eye for the venerable journalistic traditions of CBS News. What was unexpected, however, and what has since enraged many conservatives, was the probe's failure to find proof of that legendary right-wing bugaboo: "liberal bias."
The report, released by former Attorney General Richard Thornburgh and retired Associated Press president Louis Boccardi -- charged with examining the circumstances behind the discredited story -- specifically dismissed suspicions of political bias on the part of Rather, Mapes or anyone else at CBS News.
"The Panel," as Thornburgh and Boccardi refer to themselves in the report, found considerable evidence that the reporting on Bush's Guard service was rushed and sloppy. Pressure from news competitors pushed Mapes and her colleagues to go to air before the story had been fully fact-checked. Due diligence was applied neither to the source of the purported Texas Air National Guard documents used in the broadcast nor to the authenticity of the documents themselves.
Yet while mistakes were made, according to Thornburgh and Boccardi, the motives behind them were pure.
"The Panel cannot conclude that a political agenda at '60 Minutes Wednesday' drove either the timing or the airing of the [Bush Guard] Segment," wrote Thornburgh and Boccardi. And just to ensure that nobody missed the point, they reiterated, "The Panel does not believe that political motivations drove the Sept. 8 Segment."
Their findings provoked fury among conservatives, notably Weekly Standard editor Jonathan V. Last, who denounced the report as a "whitewash," and radio host Hugh Hewitt, who called it a "coverup" comparable to the Catholic Church's concealment of child sexual abuse. Others on the right -- including many of the bloggers who first attacked the authenticity of the purported Texas Air National Guard documents Mapes used -- were also disappointed in the report's conclusions, if not as angry as Last and Hewitt.
Such frustration among the conservative critics of CBS is understandable, considering the circumstances. The "60 Minutes" fiasco presented a seemingly perfect opportunity to substantiate their theory that liberal bias dominates the mainstream media -- especially at places like Black Rock, the CBS headquarters in Manhattan.
Indeed, this episode could have been a laboratory experiment designed by right-wing media critics. After all, CBS News has long been the network most often and most bitterly attacked by the right, with its eccentric "Evening News" anchorman serving as the focus of much of that criticism over the past two decades.
Here was a scandal at the very heart of the "liberal media."
As a character investigation of the Republican incumbent during a presidential election, CBS's Sept. 8 broadcast could hardly have been more sensitive -- or more susceptible to perceptions of bias. In the fiery aftermath, the network agreed that the underlying journalism was "flawed," and then decided to expose its methods, personnel, computers, e-mail and notes to an unsparing, entirely independent examination. And still more encouraging to conservatives was the appointment of Thornburgh -- a lifelong Republican and former Pennsylvania governor who served as attorney general in the first Bush administration -- to oversee the probe.
From the right-wing perspective, Thornburgh appeared to be a sterling choice. Not only is he a committed partisan and Bush loyalist but he had also nursed his own grudge against "60 Minutes"; in 1992, the show criticized the Justice Department for bungling an investigation into illegal lending by an Italian bank. Among Thornburgh's political associates is White House political advisor Karl Rove, who had worked on his unsuccessful Senate campaign in 1992. Last September, on the same day that CBS announced his appointment, Thornburgh's name showed up among the signatories of a highly partisan letter to congressional leaders supporting the renewal of the USA PATRIOT Act, along with fellow Bush Republicans Rudy Giuliani, Ted Olson, C. Boyden Gray, Bill Bennett and Bernard Kerik.
So Republicans had every reason to consider Thornburgh an utterly reliable political ally who would fulfill their dream of exposing the "liberal media." When his selection was announced, Rather fumed and the conservative critics gloated. "The beauty of the entire thing," cackled Cal Thomas, the syndicated columnist who appears as a media analyst on Fox News Channel, "is here's Dan Rather, one of Richard Nixon's major antagonists, and now he's got his own version of an independent counsel going to look into this, and it's Dick Thornburgh and he doesn't like Thornburgh."
Weekly Standard editor and Fox News contributor Fred Barnes, who regularly rants about "liberal media bias," likewise anticipated great revelations from Thornburgh. "What's in the works is the report by Dick Thornburgh, the former attorney general," said Barnes when Rather announced his impending retirement last fall. "Whenever it comes out we, I think we know now, it will be tough and scathing." Barnes said he hoped Thornburgh would prove that the CBS anchor had aired the Guard story "because he wanted to nail Bush before the election and affect the outcome of the election. He doesn't like George Bush."
Thornburgh's admirers cherished high hopes for the CBS investigation, which mostly turned out to be quite unrealistic. They wanted him to reveal that the whole Bush National Guard controversy was just a Democratic dirty trick. (It wasn't.) They wanted him to assert that the president fulfilled his military obligations without receiving any preferential treatment. (Bush didn't.) They wanted him to prove that the questioned Guard documents were forgeries. (He couldn't.)
Worst of all, after four months of investigation, Thornburgh couldn't even sustain the moldy clichi about liberal bias. Among conservatives who cannot question their own outdated assumptions, that outcome stimulates the darkest paranoia: Good old Dick Thornburgh must have joined the liberal media conspiracy, too.