CBS firings won't eliminate bias at root of problem

THE BALTIMORE SUN

ARLINGTON, Va. -- An independent commission has found CBS News guilty of "myopic zeal" in its airing of possibly forged documents that suggested President Bush lied about his service in the Air National Guard.

A 224-page report, whose chief authors were former Attorney General Richard L. Thornburgh and former Associated Press CEO Louis D. Boccardi, claimed that the pressure of getting the story before competitors, and not political bias, was responsible for the lapse in journalistic judgment.

And Watergate was a "third-rate burglary."

CBS fired the producer of the report, Mary Mapes, and asked three other staffers to resign. Dan Rather, who is leaving his anchor post in March (but will stay on the payroll and report in other capacities), was not disciplined. CBS News President Andrew Heyward will stay.

This is the Watergate equivalent of locking up the men who conducted the break-in at Democratic Party headquarters but ignoring Attorney General John Mitchell, Vice President Spiro Agnew and President Richard Nixon, which CBS News and Mr. Rather did not do.

On Page 206, the report indicts 60 Minutes Wednesday, saying it "never carried out basic reporting to attempt to confirm Lieutenant Colonel [Bill] Burkett's original story that Chief Warrant Officer [George] Conn provided him with the documents. Thus, from the outset, it was the deficient reporting by 60 Minutes Wednesday that was at the heart of the failures that plagued the segment."

But it was more than that. Only those who believe the big media are unbiased and lack an agenda will accept the explanation that this was a failure solely in journalistic judgment brought on by CBS' desire to beat its partner in the story, The New York Times, which first published it.

In Section X (Page 211) and headlined "Whether There Was A Political Agenda Driving The September 8 Segment," the report says this is "one of the most subjective, and most difficult, [questions] that the panel has sought to answer. The political agenda question was posed by the panel directly to Dan Rather and his producer, Mary Mapes, who appear to have drawn the greatest attention in terms of possible agendas. Both strongly denied that they brought any political bias to the segment."

I guess that settles it, then. Mr. Nixon said he was not a crook, but that didn't stop Mr. Rather and CBS News from attempting to prove he was. How seriously can one take a report that relies strictly on the testimony of the chief "suspects" that they had no political agenda?

Mr. Burkett certainly had a history of anti-Bush activities and statements, and Mr. Rather's anti-Republican pronouncements are legion and well-chronicled.

The Wall Street Journal's John Fund wrote a piece for OpinionJournal.com on Oct. 4 in which he quoted a former colleague of Ms. Mapes at KIRO-TV in Seattle, Susan Hutchison, as saying that Ms. Mapes "went into journalism to change society. She always was very, very cause-oriented." Mr. Fund also quoted Lou Guzzo, a former KIRO news commentator who served as counselor to Washington Gov. Dixy Lee Ray, a liberal Democrat. Mr. Guzzo said he has no problem with advocates in journalism, "but if you're as liberal and activist as Mary and work on the news rather than the opinion side, it creates problems."

It certainly does and has for Ms. Mapes, for CBS News and for all of journalism, which continues to be distrusted by a significant percentage of the public precisely because many believe the media do, in fact, have an agenda and that it mostly favors Democrats and liberal political and social ideology.

Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism (now there's a worthy but probably unattainable goal), had it right when he commented that the report doesn't say what CBS will do to change the climate that led to this outrage.

While the report recommends certain structural changes within the news division, such as naming a standards and practices executive, reducing competitive pressure, telling senior management the names of confidential sources and appointing a separate team to look into disputed news reports, there were no recommendations about changing the ideological biases inherent at CBS News.

CBS won't say whether it will act on those recommendations because CBS sees no bias, hears no bias and speaks no bias. End of story. But the public sees it, which is one reason why CBS News remains dead last in the ratings.

Cal Thomas' syndicated column appears Wednesdays in The Sun.

In my Jan. 12 column, I wrote that The New York Times was a "partner" with CBS in investigating and reporting the story about President Bush's National Guard records. However, Times Executive Editor Bill Keller has informed me there was no collaboration between his paper and CBS News.
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