The CBS Three Won’t Slink Off

StoryFebruary 17, 2005
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Five weeks after CBS blamed them for botching an expose into President Bush’s questionable service in the Texas Air National Guard, three staffers who were asked to resign are refusing to quit. [includes rush transcript]

They are: Josh Howard, executive producer of “60 Minutes Wednesday”; senior broadcast producer Mary Murphy, and senior vice president Betsy West. The New York Observer is reporting that Howard has hired a lawyer and wants CBS executive Leslie Moonves to retract comments he made following the release of an exhaustive investigation into how the report got on the air. All three staffers remain on the CBS payroll. CBS refused to comment after the Observer broke the story. Along with CBS producer Mary Mapes, the three were blamed for what an independent panel convened by the network called their “myopic zeal” to nail Bush. We’re joined now by Joe Hagan, the reporter who broke this story in The New York Observer. The piece is called “The CBS Three Won’t Slink Off; Hiring Lawyers.”

  • Joe Hagan, reporter with The New York Observer. His latest piece is titled “The CBS Three Won’t Slink Off; Hiring Lawyers”

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

AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined now by Joe Hagan, the reporter who broke the story in The New York Observer. The piece is called “The CBS Three Won’t Slink Off; Hiring Lawyers.” Joe Hagan is here with us.

JOE HAGAN: Thanks for having me.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Joe, welcome, and let’s start off. Can’t CBS supposedly just fire these folks instead of seeking their resignations, and what is the situation in terms of why they cannot, why they have been able to stay in the job?

JOE HAGAN: Well, first of all, asking them to resign is a kind of a legal technique which puts them in a position of not being able to talk, basically. As long as they’re employed, if they go into the public and begin to tell things they know, then they will be —- they could be sued. So they have to be fired in order to ever say anything. And CBS can just not fire them, and just let their contracts run out. And meanwhile, they’re in the position where they can’t even sue, because they’re employees of the company right now. So, they have got them in a bind. Meanwhile, the staffers are very angry, because they had their reputations destroyed by this whole event, but also, they have intimated, through back channels, that they have all kinds of information that was not in the report that implicates the top management at CBS in the stonewalling of the event, and also they question the report itself and how it was assembled, and who it was assembled by, by the way. And—-

AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean?

JOE HAGAN: Richard Thornburgh being a Bush family friend seems like less an independent report a more like penance—

AMY GOODMAN: Former Attorney General.

JOE HAGAN: Richard Thornburgh, right? who CBS commissioned to do this, is a friend of the Bush family. Why is he actually, you know, an independent operator here to find out what happened, right?

AMY GOODMAN: Tell us about Josh Howard, and what he is saying right now behind the scenes.

JOE HAGAN: Well, you know, through sources close to him, back channels I’m learning about — he is the former executive producer of 60 Minutes Wednesday, which aired the big thing. Basically, two days after the show was aired, he began to voice doubts to the management at CBS that, listen, maybe we should acknowledge that this thing is a hoax; you know, I’m worried, I think maybe we need to put the brakes on this thing. He was overridden by management, and they went on to stonewall for another ten days. And you know, to his — later, when the report came out, Leslie Moonves, the head of CBS, says this guy didn’t do his duty, he was irresponsible, therefore he is asked to be — to resign. Meanwhile, none of the top management pays any price, right? So you wonder: How could they have not known that their executive producer was telling them; you know, if he warned them, if he waved the red flag and they ignored him, aren’t they thereby responsible somehow and he’s — this is probably his case.

JUAN GONZALEZ: What have you been able to tell about the impact of the overall incident on the rest of the CBS news staff in terms of their —

JOE HAGAN: They’re just incredibly angry and they’re all very much supportive of these staffers who have refused to resign. And I’m telling you there’s just incredible antagonism towards the head of CBS news, who remains employed—

JUAN GONZALEZ: Andy Heyward?

JOE HAGAN: Andy Heyward, and Gil Schwartz, the head of communications, who was involved in the public relations strategy, and you know up to Leslie Moonves — question marks about what Leslie Moonves knew and when he knew it. In terms of if he finds out that the executive producer has doubts, why doesn’t he maybe think about changing course.

AMY GOODMAN: What about the attitude toward Dan Rather?

JOE HAGAN: Well, you know, Dan Rather is an interesting case. When the events were unfolding, he tied himself very tightly to Mary Mapes, the producer, and said, you know, he acted like he was very much involved with this story, because that’s what he does as a reporter — right? — he’s a TV reporter, he acts like he is actually doing the reporting himself. And so, but afterwards, he tried to distance himself from it; in the report it seems like he barely has anything to do with it, he’s flying in and doing — so people are very angry because they asked the question: Well, if you’re going to spend your career as a TV reporter, acting like a journalist, then you should take responsibility like the rest of the journalists who actually worked on this thing, and just resign.

AMY GOODMAN: Can we get one thing straight on these documents?


AMY GOODMAN: The documents that talk about —- that are allegedly about George Bush’s—-

JOE HAGAN: mm-hmm.

AMY GOODMAN: —military record. Even Richard Thornburgh’s panel did not conclude that they were false.

JOE HAGAN: Right. That’s huge.

AMY GOODMAN: They didn’t conclude they were — that they could guarantee their — that they were real. But everyone thinks that they — it was proven that they were not authentic.

JOE HAGAN: That is one of the — that’s a huge issue. This report comes out, it’s supposed to be the most exhaustive report ever, and it doesn’t actually conclude whether the documents are false or not, which — I mean, that’s — if that question mark lies out there, then how can you draw any conclusions from any of this? I just find it really unbelievable and, you know, basically, there’s just this huge assumption in the mainstream media, that it’s like a left-wing partisan thing, which is kind of ridiculous when you consider that four or five years ago The Boston Globe actually already reported all of this information, just without the documents. I mean, about Bush’s National Guard service. We already kind of know that there are gaps in his National Guard record, and that he didn’t fulfill his duty. This is just already on the record and reported. So, here they just had a document that was supposed to be the smoking gun that, you know, finally makes it 100% provable, and — you know — it’s just [trails off…]

AMY GOODMAN: So why hasn’t the White House called for an investigation —

JOE HAGAN: That is a —

AMY GOODMAN: — into the falsification of government documents?

JOE HAGAN: — incredible question. And, if, you know, if you were to — I have spoken with really highly respected, top TV industry people who spin very elaborate conspiracy theories to me about what they think is going on here: If CBS doesn’t want to know, the Thornburgh report doesn’t want to know, and the White House doesn’t want to know, well, what’s going on here? Is it just one crazy guy who typed this up in his place? But I don’t know about that.

JUAN GONZALEZ: In terms of the ability of the staffers to actually get at some of the truth — there have been threats of actually trying to subpoena CBS records by the employees, and e-mails between them. In other words, a court case could turn out to be a (sic) even more embarrassing to CBS than the actual incident itself.

JOE HAGAN: Right. That’s why these guys have — this is their hand in playing against CBS. It’s like, 'Listen. You know what we know. And you don't want us to like, unravel this entire thing. You know, if we go into court, there’s going to be things that might not be in the report exposed.’ Gaps could be filled in that are — there are holes in this report, by the way, and — they could be filled in and show a chain of command going higher than just Betsy West, who was the highest executive asked to resign.

AMY GOODMAN: When the final interview was done at the White House with Bartlett—


AMY GOODMAN: They actually never said, 'these documents are false, how dare you do this,' which is what led CBS to go on the air. They were surprised they weren’t challenged.


AMY GOODMAN: Do you think Karl Rove had any role in this?

JOE HAGAN: Obviously, there are currently no facts to support that, and I would not assert that. But if you wanted to basically construct a situation in which he was involved, you certainly could do that, and people who are involved in this — at CBS, friends and affiliates of Dan Rather, even, have questioned this, and they wonder about it. The fact that the White House hasn’t decided to investigate makes them scratch their chin and wonder: Well, why don’t they want to investigate it? Right? CBS wouldn’t want to because they don’t want to further embarrass themselves and find out that they were the victims of this, plus, they don’t want to piss off the — you know, the Bush administration any more, because they need to maintain a relationship with the White House in order to have a correspondent there.

AMY GOODMAN: Joe Hagan, we want to thank you very much for being with us. Broke the story in The New York Observer about the CBS Three who refused to go quietly to resign over “Memogate.”

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