CBS and Those Pesky National Guard Memos

Last year should have been a triumph for CBS News.

CBS News Investigates

CBS News had at least two impressive investigative journalism scoops in 2004, which were largely forgotten in the wake of National Guard 'Memogate' mess:

In April, the Wednesday edition of 60 Minutes broke open the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal with astonishing photographs. (A link to that CBS story is at left.) That alone was an impressive scoop, beating the legendary Seymour Hersh to the punch.

Q&A: The CBS 'Memogate' Mess

Media correspondent David Folkenflik examines an independent panel's findings on what went wrong with CBS News' story on President Bush's National Guard service — and who was to blame:

But CBS News kept plugging away. In August, for example, Lesley Stahl disclosed that the FBI was investigating whether a Pentagon analyst passed classified material to Israel. (See the links at left for more on that story.)

In network television circles, these are impressive stories.

By comparison, consider this quote from NBC News' Andrea Mitchell: "On days like today," she told the The Philadelphia Inquirer, "I feel like Martina [Navratilova]. Being experienced doesn't mean you have to be out of form. You can still hit winners." Her big score? Breaking the news that Democratic candidate John Kerry had selected Sen. John Edwards to be his running mate — two minutes before Fox News.

Investigative reporting takes a lot of sweat equity. At the network level, the stakes are high. They're even higher when the story focuses on the president — particularly during a war or an election season. Both were the case here.

When Dan Rather's story ran Sept. 8, it displaced another 60 Minutes Wednesday investigative piece. Ed Bradley would have explored how Bush administration officials were duped by forged documents — no joke — when they claimed that Saddam Hussein tried to purchase materials from Niger to make weapons of mass destruction. That link was used to help justify the invasion of Iraq.

After the Bush National Guard story was retracted, the network delayed the Niger story until after the election. The story never ran. And a network spokeswoman now says CBS currently has no plans to run it — although there are no reported problems with Bradley's story itself.

As I said, 2004 should have been a triumphant year for CBS. And it could have served as the beginning of a valedictory lap for Rather.

Yet thanks to the 60 Minutes Wednesday memos scandal, CBS lost its anchor, its moorings and a good chunk of its credibility with the public.

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