Network's brass, critics take solace in the report

CBS News executives say they're vindicated by an independent panel's conclusion that there was no political bias behind September's flawed report on President Bush's National Guard service.

At the same time, conservatives who accuse CBS News of bias say they're vindicated, too.

The panel - made up of former U.S. Attorney General Dick Thornburgh and former Associated Press President Louis D. Boccardi - found that 60 Minutes Wednesday, in rushing the report onto the air, failed to do even rudimentary fact-checking and ignored inconvenient evidence.

But on Page 211 of the panel's 224-page report, it said: "The Panel does not find a basis to accuse those who investigated, produced, vetted or aired the Segment of having a political bias. The Panel does note, however, that on such a politically charged story, coming in the midst of a presidential campaign in which military service records had become an issue, there was a need for meticulous care to avoid any suggestion of an agenda at work."

Such care was not taken, the panel said. It gave CBS a big black eye for ineptly handling such an important story. But executives at the network - long a target of critics who detect a political agenda in its news division - are clinging to the panel's finding on political bias.

"That for us was the big headline: That there was no political agenda, because that would have been terrible," said Linda Mason, CBS News' senior vice president for standards and special projects, whose position was created Monday in response to the report. "We were all greatly relieved to see that the panel did extensive work and gave us a clean bill of health in terms of it not being politically motivated."

But the report did not satisfy critics of CBS, who say that the panel narrowly focused on how the National Guard story was reported without looking at bigger questions of bias in those producing the story.

Matthew Sheffield, who runs the Web site (motto: "Watching CBS News so you don't have to!"), says the panel failed to ask basic questions.

"They had access to all the players and could have easily asked, 'Do you think George W. Bush deserves to be president and do you think Bush is a liar?'" Sheffield said. "They don't have to make the statement [of bias] as much as our site does, but they should admit that the people who were involved with the story had opinions and they were Democratic opinions."

Sheffield said his Web site received a record 500,000 hits on Monday - the day the report was released - and that he frequently receives e-mails from people who say they've tuned out CBS News because of a perceived bias.

The panel's report does note that the source for the documents used by CBS News, retired Lt. Col. Bill Burkett of the National Guard, was a "visible and outspoken critic of President Bush" who wanted CBS to put him in touch with Sen. John Kerry's campaign so he could offer advice on how to deal with attacks on Kerry's military record. The producer on the story, Mary Mapes, did call the campaign for him.

Also, the panel said that Mapes relied on Linda Starr, who runs a Web site filled with anti-Bush statements, to help obtain the documents. And a former lieutenant governor of Texas, Ben Barnes, appeared in the CBS report to say he helped Bush get into the National Guard. Barnes was a fund raiser for Kerry last year.

Mapes, whom the report saddled with much of the blame for what went wrong, said in a statement, "I am heartened to see that the panel found no political bias on my part, as I have none. For 25 years, I have built a reputation as a fair, honest and thorough journalist."

Those who know Dan Rather say his sin was not one of bias but of negligence. The panel found he had little involvement in the vetting of the segment and he did not see it before it aired on Sept. 8. Marvin Kalb, a former CBS correspondent and senior fellow at Harvard's Shorenstein Media Center, said Rather would not let his politics - whatever they are - color a story.

"I've known Dan since 1962," Kalb said. "Dan Rather may have all kinds of political views in the back of his mind. They're not in the front as a determining reason why a piece goes on the air."

But Kalb said conservative critics will still take the report as proof of their worldview: "I think the Republican Party in general and conservatives in America will view this as a justifiable strike at CBS and the media in general." He added that the only way for the media to recover may be to simply do good work and not give ammunition to critics, as Rather did.

CBS News has long been a target of bias allegations, and Rather in particular, going back to his days covering President Richard Nixon, when the two would spar in press conferences. Such charges were prominently aired in 2001, when former CBS correspondent Bernard Goldberg published his best-selling book Bias.

Speaking to Wolf Blitzer on CNN Monday, Goldberg said, "I'm not saying that Dan Rather went into this saying, 'I'm going to get George Bush.' ... It never ever happens that way. But I am saying that he wanted this story to be true."

Sun TV critic David Zurawik contributed to this article.