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2005-01-11

CBS News Fires Four Over Bush National Guard Story

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CBS News fired four employees on Monday after an independent report found a "myopic zeal" led to a "60 Minutes Wednesday" story about President Bush’s military service that relied on allegedly forged documents. We speak with Steve Rendall of Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting. [includes rush transcript]

CBS News fired four employees on Monday after an independent report found a "myopic zeal" led to a "60 Minutes Wednesday" story about President Bush’s military service that relied on allegedly forged documents.

The network fired Mary Mapes, producer of the report; Josh Howard, executive producer of "60 Minutes Wednesday" and his top deputy Mary Murphy; and senior vice president Betsy West. Anchor Dan Rather didn’t face any formal sanction from the panel. He also didn’t anchor last night.

Twelve days after the segment aired in early September, CBS News retracted it and Rather apologized. Rather announced his retirement two months later but insisted the timing had nothing to do with the investigation.

The report faulted the CBS staffers involved for a "rigid and blind defense" of the story after it aired, despite growing questions about the documents. But the panel said it was not able to determine conclusively that the documents were forgeries. The panel also said that despite accusations of political bias against CBS, it could not "conclude that a political agenda at "60 Minutes Wednesday" drove either the timing of the airing of the segment or its content."

Today we’ll take a look at the state of the corporate media. From conservative pundit Armstrong Williams taking almost a quarter of a million dollars from the US government to promote President Bush’s education reform to the use of government-funded video news releases disguised as real news. And CNN cancels Crossfire and says goodbye to conservative commentator Tucker Carslon. But first, we begin with the firing of four CBS News employees.

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined by Steve Rendall, who is Senior Analyst at Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting. Welcome, Steve.

STEVE RENDALL: Great to be here, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s start with this report and what has been the fallout.

STEVE RENDALL: Well, certainly, FAIR has no problem with the fact that CBS is going to discipline some of its reporters and producers over this story. It’s fairly clear that they didn’t sufficiently authenticate these documents, even though as you just stated, the documents were not found by this committee to have been forgeries, necessarily. They didn’t properly practice journalism. They didn’t authenticate these documents, and when they were called to account, they stonewalled. They insisted that their sources were unimpeachable. These are journalistic transgressions. They’re problems with professional journalism, and that people were disciplined there, we don’t have a problem with. I’m not — I don’t want to go into the details of who should or shouldn’t have been fired. I have not read the entire 274-page report that came out of this.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s interesting that CBS president and Dan Rather were not forced out, and it’s also interesting, Mary Mapes’ statement, who very much clearly stands behind her story, and makes the point that it’s noteworthy that the panel does not conclude that the documents are false. She says, "I’m shocked by the vitriolic scapegoating in Les Moonves’s statement. I’m concerned that his actions are motivated by corporate and political considerations, ratings rather than journalism." And she goes on to say that "much has been made about the fact that the documents are photocopies and therefore cannot be trusted," but says that "decades of investigative reporting have relied on just such copies of memos, documents and notes. In vetting these documents, we did not have ink to analyze, original signatures to compare or paper to date. We did have context and corroboration and believed as many journalists have before and after our story, that authenticity is not limited to original documents. Photocopies are often a basis for verified stories."

STEVE RENDALL: I think Mary Mapes, the producer on the story —

AMY GOODMAN: As wells at one on Abu Ghraib. —

STEVE RENDELL: That’s right. That’s right. They said she was bulletproof because of her reporting on Abu Ghraib, that she could get away with anything, and apparently she couldn’t. I think her comments are somewhat self-serving. At the same time, CBS had an important story here. They way oversold it. If they had gone to Lieutenant Colonel Jerry Killian’s secretary to begin with, remember, she came forth and said, these documents didn’t look like document she had typed, but they had the exact same content as she recalled things happening in real time back in the early 1970’s.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the significance of that. Saying that she — while she didn’t think she had typed these they were what Killian believed, and what was that?

STEVE RENDALL: Well, that he was pressured to sugar coat — that was his term, sugar coat George Bush’s record in the Air National Guard. They had several other — they did have other sources, to be fair to the CBS story, they had other sources quoted in the story, that did not reflect well on George Bush’s National Guard record. But I think that the most important thing here is to look at the big media picture and see how the relatively — I think — let me go back to one point, and that is whether or not Andrew Heyward and Dan Rather should have been disciplined further. I think that that’s — that’s a question that’s worth asking. And is there some scapegoating here of the relatively lower level employees? One of the employees that lost their job was a vice president of CBS news, Betsy West, and another was the executive producer of "60 Minutes Wednesday." So, these were not low-level employees.

But I think the important thing here to do is to step back and look at the discipline that was administered here at CBS, compared to some other comparable stories. I mean, certainly a much more important story was the way that the U.S. media sold the weapons of mass destruction story, particularly the New York Times and particularly at the New York Times’ Judith Miller. The Times came forth, ran an editor’s note that said that they had been insufficiently skeptical, they hadn’t sufficiently scrutinized the claims made by the administration about weapons of mass destruction. However, in that editor’s note, nobody was named, nobody was disciplined. This was a much more important story. Now, what’s the difference between these two stories? Well, the CBS story was critical of the government. For one, Judith Miller’s journalistic transgressions favored the government’s story.

Also another point here to bear in mind, is that the CBS story fits the media script. We hear over and over again in the media echo chamber that our media is liberal. Therefore, even though this commission found that there was no evidence of liberal bias, it fit the perception that the media’s constantly haranguing us with that the media’s liberal, so this fit that script. The story was another example, at least in many people’s minds, of liberal bias.

AMY GOODMAN: We are talking to Steve Rendall of Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting. When we come back, we’re going to continue talking about the state of corporate media. We’ll talk about what happened with Armstrong Williams, what’s happening at CNN and overall, corporate media, not to be confused with state media, though sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference.

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