Q&A: The CBS 'Memogate' Mess

An independent review panel has scorched CBS News for a Sept. 8, 2004, report that purported to throw new light on President Bush's time in the Texas National Guard, based in part on memos whose authenticity has since come into question. The inquiry — led by former U.S. Attorney General Dick Thornburgh and former Associated Press CEO Lou Boccardi — said a "myopic zeal" had produced a broadcast that could not be substantiated.

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Hear David Folkenflik's report on the firing of four CBS News staffers over the network's Sept. 8 report on Bush's National Guard service:

The report also detailed myriad cracks in CBS's vaunted news operation. The company responded by cleaning house: A star producer was fired, and three high-level executives — including a senior vice president and the show's two top officials — were forced to resign. A fourth was reassigned.

Blog Attacks on CBS

Below are two of the online critiques of CBS News that appeared on Sept. 9:

But even as the scandal spirals, it's still not certain that the documents at the center of the controversy were fake. And other news organizations have published reports that largely support the greater premise that President Bush cannot account for much of his time in the National Guard.

NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik answers questions about the CBS "Memogate" mess.

Q. What was the original program about?

A: It was on 60 Minutes Wednesday, a middle-of-the-week 60 Minutes knockoff that features Dan Rather, among others, in between his anchoring duties. The segment was produced by a tough and successful CBS vet, Mary Mapes. (In broadcast news, the segment producer is essentially the "author" of the story, in this case, the lead reporter and writer.) On Sept. 8, Rather presented the story, which promised to put to rest the question of what young Lt. George W. Bush — whose father was a congressman and ambassador at the time — actually did in the National Guard during the Vietnam War years.

Rather and Mapes landed some seemingly juicy gets:

1. They presented an interview with Ben Barnes, a powerful former Texas politician, who said he pulled strings to get Bush into the Air National Guard in 1968 — and thereby helped him skirt the draft and combat service in Vietnam.

2. They also interviewed Robert Strong, an administrative officer in Bush's National Guard unit and a colleague of Bush's squadron commander, Lt. Col. Jerry B. Killian. Strong said Killian felt Bush got special treatment. And he spoke of the highly politicized environment of the National Guard at the time.

3. Most explosively, CBS presented documents, said to be signed by Killian, in which he complained of pressure from his superiors to treat Bush lightly. Killian also wrote of grounding Lt. Bush, yanking his flight status, because he failed to appear for a physical, according to the papers obtained by CBS.

The White House didn't deny the allegations. And aides to Bush publicly released the documents, which CBS News had shared prior to the broadcast.

All three of the elements came under fire after the broadcast and were debunked in the independent report.

For example, Barnes, the influential politician, helped raise money for Democratic presidential candidate John F. Kerry early last year. And he says he has no idea whether his calls actually made the difference in getting Bush into the National Guard.

Strong's interview was also taken out of context. He was told that the documents were being authenticated — so his comments were based on the assumption that they were real. And even so, he told CBS he was speaking generally about the climate of the National Guard — not specifically about Bush's situation. That wasn't clear on the broadcast.

Q: And weren't those documents fakes?

A: That's the most controversial part of the whole thing. These days, CBS has been saying an emphatic, "We don't know.” The outside report says it cannot prove that they are forgeries.

Most other people in the known media universe currently wouldn't even trust the documents for use as packing paper.

Bloggers, those folks who write online journals, or Web logs, began questioning the documents shortly after the original broadcast — and by shortly, I mean a few hours. Conservatives on talk radio picked up the refrain the very next day.

Within two days, major media outlets like the Associated Press, the Los Angeles Times, NBC and ABC conferred with their own document experts. They almost uniformly said the papers looked as though they had been generated by computer-based technology — word processors — not the IBM Selectric typewriters in use three decades ago.

Q: How important were the documents to the story?

A: The larger story — of Bush receiving gentle treatment in his military service — appears to be sound. The Boston Globe's Walter V. Robinson, for example, reported in 2000 about gaps in Bush's military record.

And the same day as the September 2004 CBS report, the Globe published a fresh analysis that made the case that Bush may have failed to fulfill adequately his obligations in the National Guard — and thus could have been subject to being shipped off for combat duty. (A link to that analysis can be found at left.)

Bush has always argued that his honorable discharge proves that he fulfilled his duties in the military. But it is essentially common wisdom that he cannot entirely account for what he did during those years; the matter has been routine fodder for late-night comics and editorial cartoonists.

But CBS, especially Mapes, thought the memos brought fresh relevance to the issue. It also came after weeks of criticism by conservatives of Democrat John F. Kerry's record in Vietnam, and at a time when Bush's decision to invade Iraq was a campaign issue.

Q: So how did CBS News respond to the initial criticism?

A: Not well. Rather, CBS News President Andrew Heyward and other executives within CBS News defended the story in its entirety. The network initially refused to reveal the source of its documents. In an on-air statement about the debate, Dan Rather reiterated that experts had vouched for the authenticity of the papers. But the network refused to identify them, saying they could be the target of abuse by supporters of the president. And off the air, CBS was sharply dismissive of the criticism, saying it had been stirred up by amateur bloggers and conservatives with an axe to grind.

The independent panel's report says that Rather's statement to viewers that experts had vouched for the documents was "inaccurate." Two of the four experts hired by CBS later said in interviews they had raised objections before the broadcast. In other words, CBS was compounding the broadcast of an untrustworthy story with an untrue defense.

Then things got worse: One of the network's document experts, Marcel Matley, was interviewed on the CBS Evening News in a story that defended the original report. Matley said skeptics couldn't honestly know the documents were forgeries because the copies used by the network — and its critics — weren't good enough to be able to tell.

Q: Wait -– so CBS' defense came to be that the reproductions of the documents were of such poor quality that they can't be disproved?

A: Exactly. Oddly, it's an argument that found surprising strength in some quarters. This month's issue of the Columbia Journalism Review has a long article dissecting some of the criticism aimed at CBS News, taking particular issue with the self-congratulatory reaction of bloggers who took credit for driving the CBS controversy.

Here's what the author, Corey Pein, wrote:

"Ultimately, we don't know enough to justify the conventional wisdom: that the documents were 'apparently bogus'… and that a major news network was an accomplice to political slander." (There's a link to Pein's full article at left.)

Jonathan V. Last, a writer with the conservative Weekly Standard, fired back: "The university's motto may still be "In lumine Tuo videbimus lumen," but over at the j-school they have a new slogan: You can't prove anything." (Last's story can be found in the Web resources section at left.)

One of the most damning things against CBS News — and the logic to which even Heyward and Rather belatedly yielded, after nearly two weeks — is that the National Guard report relied on documents that the network could not completely vouch for. Instead, their one analyst said critics could not prove they were faked.

That's a standard that no credible journalist would swallow. No reputable network would put a report on the air based on documents if its source had said, "I don't know whether these puppies are real, but no one's proved they aren't."

The report found that Mapes had argued in defense of the memos even after they were questioned. She told CBS News executives the preponderance of evidence fell on the side of the memo's authenticity. Senior executives said they were alarmed to learn — after the fact — that their certainty was so short of ironclad.

Q: What else did the independent panel's report say?

It detailed a wholesale breakdown in the procedures of a network that once served as the gold standard for broadcast news. Think Edward R. Murrow or Walter Cronkite.

If you're not thinking about them, rest assured people at CBS News are, right now.

Mary Mapes comes out worst. Specifically, the report says Mapes got documents from a questionable source, retired Army National Guard Lt. Col. Bill Burkett. She failed to check carefully where he had gotten the documents, making only cursory efforts to track that down.

The night before the broadcast, associate producer Yvonne Miller told the inquiry board, "everything but the ceiling tiles" was falling down on Mapes.

But Mapes, and CBS, plowed ahead. Two of the document examiners hired to review the documents were sharply questioning their authenticity. The report says Mapes brushed aside their concerns. And she deflected the questions of the executives overseeing the show, who were ostensibly her superiors.

Q: How could that happen?

A: As Leslie Moonves, the Viacom co-president who runs CBS, told me in an interview, Mapes had star status from her ability to help Rather and CBS break the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal earlier last year.

Q. A lot of the cable news folks are charging that political bias drove the Sept. 8 report.

A: Rather has long been a lightning rod for the right — ever since his coverage of Watergate and President Nixon in the early 1970s. The Thornburgh-Boccardi report (and remember, Thornburgh was attorney general for President Bush's father) found no direct evidence that political bias played a part in the story. But it ascribed two tone-deaf moves to Mapes: according to CBS News executives, she failed to flag that her source for the documents had been an outspoken critic of Bush. And she actually called the Kerry campaign before the story broke. Burkett, the source, was angry that the campaign had failed to dispatch questions raised about Kerry's military service in Vietnam by a group called the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. Mapes asked if Joe Lockhart, a senior Kerry aide, would talk to Burkett for a few minutes. He did. And it gave Republicans a chance to charge collusion.

Q: What did CBS do after receiving the report?

Les Moonves fired Mapes outright, and asked for the resignations of three other execs —Senior Vice President Betsy West, 60 Minutes Wednesday executive producer Josh Howard, and Howard's deputy, Mary Murphy.

News president Andrew Heyward, who kept a low profile this week, didn't get dinged. Instead, Moonves praised him on two grounds:

The day before the broadcast, Heyward had sent an e-mail telling West and Howard that the story would be politically sensitive and that they shouldn't be steamrolled into putting it on the air. According to the report, Mapes steamrolled them nonetheless.

Two days after the broadcast, even as he was publicly defending the story, Heyward asked West to look into the substantive complaints against 60 Minutes Wednesday. She never did.

Q: And that's a good thing?

A. Depending on your point of view, Heyward was valiant and his subordinates failed him — or he was utterly ineffective as a leader. Some people within CBS News — though few by name — are questioning how he held onto his job. Andy Rooney is a notable exception. He told USA Today that "the people most instrumental in getting the broadcast on escaped."

Q: And Dan?

Late last November, Dan Rather announced he would step down in March, on the 24th anniversary of his debut as anchor of the CBS Evening News. He'll stay on as a correspondent for 60 Minutes Wednesday — the very show at the center of the storm.

According to people at CBS News, it was not a decision Rather would have made absent the scandal. But it means he did it on his own terms — not because of the findings of that report. And Moonves said pointedly Tuesday that Rather's retirement was sufficient.

Q: Who's going to replace him?

No one knows. The CBS Evening News is in the ratings basement. Since broadcast news' viewing audience is steadily shrinking, it's not a good place to be. The company will probably play it safe and bring in a handsome and trustworthy face to lead a rebuilding department. On the other hand, CBS is now owned by Viacom, the people who bring you MTV, Survivor and Showtime. So you never know.

Even in third place, the evening newscast makes millions of dollars for CBS. And it helps to justify the costs of correspondents who appear on other shows, such as the CBS Early Show, 60 Minutes — and 60 Minutes Wednesday. So don't look for the newscast to disappear anytime soon.

Q. Is the controversy over?

A: Not a chance.

More in 'Media Circus'

In his occasional column for NPR.org, Folkenflik says the 'Memogate' mess robbed CBS News of what should have been a triumphant year for its investigative journalists. Read the column:

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