'60 Minutes' story suffered from 'myopic zeal'


In TV news lingo, it's called "crashing the story" - a frenzied, focused, all-out effort to get the information, get the pictures, get it on the air and, most important, get it first.

It happens with elections. It happened with the tsunamis. And, according to the report of an independent review panel, it happened with Dan Rather's investigation into President Bush's National Guard service during the Vietnam War.

In its zeal to break the story, CBS News' standard vetting process - similar to one that all networks use to verify investigative stories - failed to catch inaccuracies.

"This was more than a 'crash,'" said Al Tompkins, a veteran broadcast journalist who teaches at the Poynter Institute, a journalism think tank in Florida. "This was self-destruction, almost - to try and pull a story like this together and verify documents and do that kind of legwork in that period of time."

The panel's report provides a unique look at how, in an organization devoted to seeking the truth, zeal and good intentions can go awry.

Rather, who was spread thin on other stories as the Bush piece was being prepared, received little criticism in the panel's report. Instead much of the blame is placed on former 60 Minutes Wednesday producer Mary Mapes.

"Sometimes, in these shows, the producers do the bulk of the work and the correspondent just pops in and does the major interviews," Tompkins said. Rather is known for deep involvement in his stories, he said.

Distanced from story

That he didn't this time may have been part of the problem, said Joe Angotti, broadcast department chairman at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism.

"The problem is that the person who ends up reporting the story and the face who appears on television frequently have little to do with the story. This is a perfect example of that," he said. "You would think on a story of this importance, Dan would have just immersed himself."

Mapes and Rather had started looking into Bush's service record in 1999. In 2004, as stories about the military service of Bush and his opponent for the presidency, Sen. John Kerry, began appearing in the media, Mapes received a tip that a retired lieutenant colonel with the Texas Army National Guard, Bill Burkett, might possess unreleased documents.

Mapes met with Burkett Sept. 2, and during a three-hour conversation he handed her two documents. Three days later, he gave her four more.

Knowing other news organizations were pursuing the story, the decision was made at CBS - the panel's report does not say by whom - to air the segment in less than a week: Sept. 8 instead of its originally date, Sept. 29.

The pressure to get the story first - "myopic zeal," the panel called it - was the primary reason for all that the report says happened next: careless reporting, failure to authenticate the documents or determine their origin, false statements by the producer and a failure to catch mistakes, despite three levels of review and cautionary e-mails from the network president.

"We're not the only industry that falls into the 'myopic zeal' category," Tompkins said. "Whether you work in a hospital, as a journalist, as a stockbroker, the fact is competitive pressures are a part of our life and force us to move faster than we would, be more aggressive, spend more time and energy."

Several CBS News staff members, the report said, compared the breakdown to "a 'perfect storm,' in which a confluence of factors came together and led to the failures."

Too much deference

The report said that both Rather and Mapes were shown too much deference - both by those they were working with and those whose job was to oversee them.

"They deliver the goods time and time again so there is a natural sense to say, 'Hey, they do good work,' and just take them at their word," said Robert Calo, associate professor of television at the University of California, Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism. "With a rookie, you might ask them to show me that or prove this."

Although each network has its own culture, the general vetting process for airing investigative television stories can be fairly rigorous, experts said.

At Dateline NBC, for example, every rough cut and rough script is reviewed by several executives, including the show's executive producer and members of the executive board, said Calo, a former producer for Dateline and for ABC's Primetime Live.

"The media today is very risk averse," Calo said. "It is not in their best interest to have these kinds of embarrassments. It used to be that lawyers were on your side, but now, they're not. They're more like devil's advocates who want to know if they can get copies of a document or to ask if something in the story is fair."

But even when networks follow strict standards and practices, mistakes can still happen.

Back in the 1980s, NBC Nightly News ran an exclusive story, based on unidentified Navy sources, that an explosion on the battleship USS Iowa that killed 27 sailors was possibly caused by a murder or suicide plot between two homosexual crewmen.

It turned out not to be true. NBC retracted the story, saying the explosion likely was caused by equipment failure.

"We ran that story after a lot of checking and with a lot of qualifications, but we still got it wrong," said Agnotti, the show's executive producer at the time. "We all make mistakes. We will all continue to make mistakes."

An article in Tuesday's Sun about how CBS' vetting process broke down during an investigation of President Bush's National Guard service incorrectly stated how many sailors were killed in an explosion in 1989 on the battleship USS Iowa. Forty-seven crewmen died.The Sun regrets the errors.
Copyright © 2020, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad