CBS fires 4 executives, producers over Bush-National Guard report

Thank you for supporting our journalism. This article is available exclusively for our subscribers, who help fund our work at The Baltimore Sun.

CBS News fired four executives and senior producers yesterday, after an independent panel concluded that a "myopic zeal" to beat the competition on a story about President Bush's National Guard service led to serious flaws in reporting the piece.

In a scathing 224-page report, the panel appointed by CBS identified a host of missteps that led 60 Minutes Wednesday to air an erroneous report and then staunchly defend it for almost two weeks despite mounting evidence that it was flawed. The network relied on an untrustworthy source, failed to verify key documents and tossed aside evidence that didn't support the story, the panel found.

"The fact is that basic journalistic steps were not carried out in a manner consistent with accurate and fair reporting, leading to countless misstatements and omissions in the reporting by 60 Minutes Wednesday and CBS News," the panel said in its report, released yesterday.

The panel consisted of Richard L. Thornburgh, a former U.S. attorney general and Republican governor of Pennsylvania; and Louis D. Boccardi, former CEO and president of the Associated Press. The panel interviewed at least 66 people, including 32 at CBS News, as part of its three-month investigation.

CBS News placed the entire report on its Web site yesterday, along with a statement from CBS Chairman and CEO Leslie Moonves acknowledging that "the system broke down" and that there were "lapses every step of the way."

It was unusually severe self-criticism for a network, but it reflected a desire for transparency in an era when news organizations are under increased scrutiny by critics looking for bias and errors.

The report comes as television networks and newspapers have been fighting to maintain credibility after several high-profile scandals. During the past two years, top editors at The New York Times and USA Today have resigned after reporters at the newspapers were found to have fabricated stories.

The original 60 Minutes piece, which aired Sept. 8, was based on four documents that alleged that Bush had received preferential treatment while in the Texas Air National Guard. The authenticity of the documents was quickly challenged online because their typeface was rare in typewriters at the time.

But yesterday's report identified much larger problems in how the story was reported and vetted, significantly a frenetic effort to get it on the air quickly, that compromised basic fact-checking. CBS received the documents Sept. 2 and aired its report just six days later.

By Sept. 20, amid mounting pressure, CBS disavowed the story and then formed the independent panel to investigate. As part of changes announced yesterday, CBS News will create the position of senior vice president for standards and special practices, to ensure fairness and accuracy in reporting.

CBS News President Andrew Heyward will keep his job and was largely spared in the report because he urged deputies in e-mail messages to get the story right, including one Sept. 7 that said: "We're going to have to defend every syllable of this one."

CBS Evening News anchor Dan Rather, who was the correspondent for the segment, has already announced that he will step down from the anchor desk in March. The panel reported that Rather apparently did not participate in the vetting of the segment and did not see it before it aired.

The employees who were dismissed are Mary Mapes, the producer of the National Guard segment; Josh Howard, the executive producer of 60 Minutes Wednesday; Mary Murphy, the senior broadcast producer of 60 Minutes Wednesday; and Betsy West, the senior vice president for CBS newsmagazines.

After the segment aired Sept. 8 and was questioned by mainstream news media, Heyward directed West to investigate the sourcing for the segment. She did not do so, the panel said.

But the panel's report lays much of the blame on Mapes, an Emmy award-winning producer who had helped break the story of detainee abuse at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. Mapes had earned a great deal of respect during 15 years at CBS News - such that colleagues did not challenge her on the Bush story.

Media scholars said they were most surprised by the systemic breakdown in journalism standards described in the report.

"The one thing that I find shocking is the extent to which the entire system at CBS News failed," said Kelly McBride, ethics group leader at the Poynter Institute, a journalism think tank in St. Petersburg, Fla. "You have one person doing very bad work - the producer, working on assumption, discounting contrary information and not being honest with her peers and superiors about what she knows.

"But then you have the executive producer not challenging her, not doing his job to make sure the process works, and you have the vice president [Betsy West] not doing what the president tells her to do."

The panel's report describes how Mapes made a series of errors in pursuing the story. Among them:

  • Mapes failed to trace the source of the documents used in the report. She received the documents from retired Lt. Col. Bill Burkett of the Texas National Guard. Burkett told Mapes he had received the documents from another guardsman, Chief Warrant Officer George Conn. But Mapes did "virtually nothing" to attempt to contact Conn, the panel found. The documents were allegedly written by Lt. Col. Jerry Killian, who supervised Bush during his Guard duty. Killian died in 1984.

  • Mapes failed to authenticate the documents. Four document examiners were consulted in producing the story, and all of them said they could not authenticate the documents because they were copies. One examiner, Marcel Matley, said Killian's signature on one document appeared to match Killian's signature in official records.

    But the story that aired said a document expert "believes the material is authentic" when Matley had told Rather that he could verify only the signature. Concerns of other examiners were not investigated.

  • Mapes called Killian's commanding officer during the relevant time period, Maj. Gen. Bobby Hodges, to discuss the documents. He agreed to have the documents read to him over the phone. Mapes later told the panel that Hodges confirmed the content of the documents. Hodges told the panel that was not true.

    In any case, on Sept. 10 - two days after the report aired and when Hodges finally did see the documents - he called Mapes and Rather to say he was certain they were not authentic because they used erroneous terms and abbreviations. But CBS stuck by the story for another 10 days.

    The panel's report also addressed Mapes' contact with a senior member of Sen. John Kerry's presidential campaign before the segment aired - a revelation that led some to accuse CBS News of bias. Mapes told the panel that Burkett wouldn't give her the documents unless she put him in touch with Kerry's campaign. While saying that the contact was "highly inappropriate," the panel said it could not conclude that a political agenda was behind the segment.

    In a statement yesterday, Mapes said she stood by the segment and still believes the documents are authentic. She blamed her bosses for rushing the story, saying: "If there was a journalistic crime committed here, it was not by me."

    The panel said it could not ultimately conclude whether the documents were authentic or forgeries.
    Fallout at CBS

    Fired: Four CBS News executives for rushing on air a report about President Bush's military record based on unverified documents.

    Criticized: Dan Rather for defending the story "overzealously."

    Still in charge: CBS News President Andrew Heyward, who the panel said explicitly urged caution before the report aired.

    No bias: Investigators found no evidence that the report - aired two months before Bush won re-election - was politically motivated.

    From staff and wire reports

  • Advertisement