CBS News President Andrew Heyward said yesterday that his network will not reveal the source of disputed documents used to report that President Bush received favored treatment in the Texas Air National Guard, even though that decision may mean many Americans would distrust a 60 Minutes report on the subject.
"I'm confident the story was appropriately vetted before it went on the air. It is the nature of this kind of investigative reporting that sometimes sources remain confidential," Heyward said in a telephone interview. "We're going to hang tough, even if that leaves some questions unanswered."
The charged political atmosphere surrounding the story has made it more difficult to identify sources publicly, he said.
"This is a political hot potato," Heyward said. "There's a kind of harassment, an attempt to intimidate, that I think gives people pause."
Republican allies of President Bush, including his wife, Laura Bush, have been joined by some mainstream media outlets in questioning the authenticity of the documents.
Today, The Dallas Morning News is reporting that the retired secretary to Lt. Col. Jerry B. Killian, the supposed author of the memos, believes them to be forgeries - but that they closely resemble documents she typed about her former boss' thoughts on Bush.
While Heyward continued to stand by the network's use of the documents, he conceded yesterday that many Americans may never be fully convinced the story is true.
"I'm not sure we're going to get a definitive answer on the documents, but I've not seen anything to shake my confidence," Heyward said. "We may be faced with a situation of dueling experts. I don't know how to resolve that."
He said he was aware of the steps used to assure the story's accuracy before it was broadcast. Asked how viewers should evaluate the story, Heyward pointed to the reputation of 60 Minutes for respected and aggressive journalism.
"I would hope our experience and our reputation is a help there," Heyward said. "If we were constantly wrong and constantly irresponsible, I wouldn't expect viewers to believe us."
Last Wednesday, in a report focusing on then-Lt. George W. Bush's military service, 60 Minutes relied on documents that anchor Dan Rather said the network had been told came from the personal file of Killian, Bush's squadron commander. Killian wrote, according to memos dated 1972 and 1973, that Bush had been stripped of flight clearance because he had refused to follow orders, including the requirement to take a physical exam.
The memos further suggest that Bush avoided fulfilling his military obligations because of intervention by senior officials. The CBS story received widespread coverage from other major media outlets, including The Sun.
Mary Mapes, the 60 Minutes producer who first obtained the photographs of the abuse of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib for broadcast, was involved in the preparation of the Air National Guard story.
But the authenticity of the documents was soon subjected to fierce scrutiny, first from Web sites and subsequently from major news organizations, such as the Los Angeles Times and the Associated Press.
Many of these people said the documents appear to feature font types and spacing patterns that resemble documents produced by modern word processors.
Several experienced journalists interviewed by The Sun have said CBS needed to explain its reporting process better to ease public doubts. The involvement of Rather, the network's chief anchor, managing editor and best-known personality, has complicated the debate. On two occasions - last Friday and Monday - Rather devoted time on the CBS Evening News to a spirited defense of the story. Although Rather summarized the criticism against CBS, no dissenting voices were heard on those news segments.
Though the network has said - and Heyward reiterated - that several experts in documentation were interviewed on the record for the original story, only one, Marcel Matley, has been identified publicly. Others without connection to the CBS story have stepped forward subsequently with conflicting views.
In addition, the network says it interviewed several of Killian's colleagues who confirmed that the memos reflected his thinking at the time. One was interviewed on the air.
But Heyward said 60 Minutes' larger story questioning Bush's military record had become unfairly overshadowed by criticism of the documents CBS used.
"The fundamentals of the story have not been questioned. The debate is focused fairly narrowly," Heyward said, adding, "I don't know that we can expect that the controversy will be laid to rest."