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The Press, The President and the Privilege of Power: Part II Of Our Conversation With Fired CBS “Memo-Gate” Producer Mary Mapes

StoryFebruary 10, 2006
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We continue our conversation with Mary Mapes, the longtime television news producer and reporter who worked for CBS for fifteen years. Mapes tells the story of the memo that brought down CBS Evening News anchor Dan Rather and prompted CBS to force out four of its top journalists–including Mapes. In the report, Rather charged that President Bush had received preferential treatment in the National Guard in the early 1970s. [includes rush transcript]

We go now to Part II of our interview with Mary Mapes who joined us yesterday in our firehouse studio.

Mary is a veteran television news producer and reporter who worked for CBS for 15 years. She was most well-known for breaking the Abu Ghraib prison torture stories in 2004. A few months after that story aired, another story in which Mary was the lead producer aired on the Wednesday edition of 60 Minutes. That report ended up bringing down CBS News anchor Dan Rather and prompted the network to force out four of its top journalists, including Mary Mapes.

On September 8th 2004- two months before the Presidential election- a report critical of President Bush’s service in the Texas National Guard aired on 60 Minutes. In the report, CBS anchor Dan Rather charged that President Bush had received preferential treatment in the National Guard in the early 1970”s and used as evidence copies of memos that had been provided to the network by a confidential source.

The source turned out to be retired Texas National Guard officer, Bill Burkett. Almost immediately, the validity of the memo and the credibility of the source came under attack.

Mapes was fired after an investigation by CBS which she says was politically biased. The investigation was led by the CEO of the Associated Press Louis Boccardi and former U.S Attorney General Dick Thornburgh who had served in the Presidential administrations of Ronald Reagan and George Bush Senior.

Mapes has written a book about her experience titled, “Truth and Duty: The Press, The President and the Privilege of Power.” She has always stood by the National Guard story and maintains that the documents in question were never found to be false.”

  • Mary Mapes, former CBS producer. Author of “Truth and Duty: The Press, The President and the Privilege of Power.”

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

AMY GOODMAN: We now turn to part two of the interview with Mary Mapes.

MARY MAPES: — a good story. I thought we had broken new ground. I was pleased with it.

AMY GOODMAN: What happened then?

MARY MAPES: The next morning I came in, received a nice round of congratulations, and about noon, all hell broke loose, as the internet really started what was a very well-planned and coordinated conservative political attack. And everyone from the Drudge Report to websites I had never heard of, like FreeRepublic.com. LittleGreenFootballs, all kinds of other conservatives sites, attacked the story, all of them claiming that the documents were not authentic, that they had been forged, and they were citing really obscure type-face issues that I think really confused most Americans as being proof that they were forged.

They were also, by the way, totally and completely wrong. One of the things I did in the book was continue to research and find examples from within the National Guard archives in Texas that showed all the typeface issues and proportional spacing and all this stuff that they accused us of having overlooked, those examples were all in place in the archives. So their complaints were complete B.S.

AMY GOODMAN: And yet, the secretary of Killian, the man who purportedly wrote these documents, said that she would have been the one to type these memos and she never did, though they did reflect his sentiments, she said.

MARY MAPES: She said they were very true to what had actually happened, and she remembered discussions with Killian. So she said they were absolutely real. She said they had not typed them, and that was based on her judging the memos as having been too sloppily typed. On the other hand, he had other people who typed for him. He had men who in — apparently in 1972, lacked the ability to type, physically. I mean, that was sort of the thought at the time, that men couldn’t really type and do things in a really good way. But they had airmen who typed. And it’s possible Killian had typed them himself.

AMY GOODMAN: What happened at CBS? When did they start to turn? When did the producers, Dan Rather himself? How did it go?

MARY MAPES: Dan was always very strong, always wanting to fight, always wanted to uphold the story. I think the corporate ownership was getting very nervous, certainly a day or so in, getting very, very nervous. One of the problems at CBS was that despite the fact that it’s a large corporation, we didn’t have then any sort of crisis management team. We had P.R. people, who basically answered press questions about how old Mike Wallace was and who was going to be interviewed on Sunday night, and they were not at all prepared to handle what was basically a political assault. We needed a war room, and we didn’t have that. We had some really nice P.R. people who were not at all equipped to handle it.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Now, you also came under fire for a phone call, a phone conversation you had with Joe Lockhart from the Kerry campaign, that, in essence, you were alerting them to aspects of the story. Could you talk about that?

MARY MAPES: Well, that was how it was characterized. What had happened was Bill Burkett had asked me to give his phone number to someone with the Kerry campaign, and I had no connections with the Kerry campaign. I called the press person, because that was my big inside. I knew who the press person was, because he was listed, you know, in various stories. So I called him and passed off Burkett’s number. Burkett wanted to discuss with the Kerry folks what he felt was a better means of fighting back on the swift boat attacks. So the calls were not about the Guard story at all. And this was at the height of the swift boat attacks that were, you know, launched on John Kerry. Joe Lockhart called me before the story aired and asked me what Burkett wanted to talk about. And in a two-minute conversation, I told him he wanted to talk about the swift boat attacks.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the next interview that Dan Rather had with Burkett.

MARY MAPES: The interview he did prior to the apology, which came, I think, on the 19th of September, he did — we did a long interview in Dallas with Bill Burkett. This was after Burkett had revealed to us that he had not told us the entire truth about where he had gotten the documents. I think that was a fatal mistake for Burkett, because it gave CBS an opportunity to say, 'Okay, the source has lied to you, so now he's no longer afforded protection.’ And it was very tough interview.

I — again, though, I don’t believe Bill Burkett is a forger in any way, and I don’t believe he even has the information he would need to be able to do that kind of a creation of documents that were so accurate. So we did a long interview with Burkett, in which he admitted he had lied about where he had gotten them, told us what he said was the true story, that he had been handed these at a cattle show in Texas, and that’s how he brought them to us. We did check out the elements of the story that we were able to. Burkett was at the cattle show. He was working the information booth on the days that he says he had asked someone to hold something for him. All of those little things fit in. But you cannot go back and recreate a moment and check.

AMY GOODMAN: Mary Mapes, the title of your book is Truth and Duty: The Press, President and the Privilege of Power. What do you think is the truth of the National Guard story? What do you think happened?

MARY MAPES: I think very clearly Bush didn’t — he had — he came sliding in, a son of privilege and connection, and he went sliding out when he got tired of it or lost his nerve, or for some reason didn’t want to show up any more. That’s something that poor people never have the option of doing. And it is absolutely clear what happened, and we’re having a nonsensical discussion about whether or not it’s true. I lost my job over whether or not it’s true. And it’s as true as the fact that this table is wooden.

AMY GOODMAN: Where have you concluded the documents came from?

MARY MAPES: I think the documents — I can tell you what I know about the National Guard and the way it operates. The Guard had an awful lot of lawsuits with people who were being drummed out, discrimination suits, well-founded, by Hispanics and women and blacks. There were a lot of people going through the files and trying to show favoritism to various people. At the time that these suits were taking place in — beginning in 1980, Bush’s father was Vice President of the United States. And I think Bush was very much a target for being shown that he had — he was treated with great favoritism. So I think one of the things that happened in the Guard all the time was that people would go through and pilfer documents. It happened constantly, and these documents would make their way into court in various lawsuits, and I think that’s what happened.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And do you think that there was some kind of attempt to ambush CBS with the documents?

MARY MAPES: I don’t think they came from Republicans. I know a lot of Democrats and progressives had a very, very complex theory about Karl Rove doing a double-triple sow-cow back flip and handing the documents to Bill Burkett, and I think that would be a very dangerous way to behave. And I don’t think — it’s kind of a too-cute-by-half, and it’s really not Rove’s style.

AMY GOODMAN: And what about Bartlett not contesting the documents?

MARY MAPES: I think that’s perfectly in line with the way the White House does things. They never did contest the authenticity of the documents, never did at all, because I think they knew that they were very, very probably real documents. I think the White House and the Justice Department also never called for an investigation into what conservatives were claiming was the forgery of federal documents.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, let’s talk about that, because, I mean, this is the key point that, I would say, —

MARY MAPES: I wish they would.

AMY GOODMAN: 99% of the people in this country didn’t get from the story, that the Thornburgh report did not say that the documents were false.

MARY MAPES: No, they could not. They could not say that. There’s no evidence that the documents are false. Even though I think they wanted very much to say the documents were false, I was fired, a numb of people lost their jobs, good people, because we aired a report based on documents that no one can prove are wrong.

JUAN GONZALEZ: What about the impact of what — the treatment that you received and those others who were fired on the rest of your colleagues who stayed behind at CBS News?

MARY MAPES: Oh, I think the lesson is clear: Keep your head down and do celebrity interviews as often as possible; don’t rock the boat. I grew up believing that as a journalist it was my job to rock the boat. And the moment I stepped into the boat, I wanted to rock it. And that’s what we’re supposed to do. Journalists are not supposed to be lapdogs, we’re supposed to be watchdogs. We’re supposed to be inappropriate guests at the public dinner parties. We’re supposed to be people who ask rude questions, because we’re there on behalf of Americans, all Americans. And we’re supposed to behave that way. We’re not supposed to be friends of the elite, and we’re not supposed to be hob knobbing with them as often on as possible. We’re supposed to be holding their feet to the fire.

JUAN GONZALEZ: You are responsible for the — perhaps the single most damaging story to the Bush administration, in terms of the war in Iraq, which is the Abu Ghraib prison story. Certainly, that was — has to be the political tide turner in most of the world, in terms of the public’s view of Iraq. Do you feel that to some degree, as a result of that story, you were already on the radar screen as somebody who had to be dealt with by the Bush administration?

MARY MAPES: Well, I think Dan Rather has been on the radar screen for the Bush administration for an awfully long time, I mean, going back to the first Bush administration. I think Dan has very unfairly been labeled as someone who brings a bias to his reporting. And having worked with him, I can tell you —

AMY GOODMAN: You mean the interview that he did with Bush, Sr.?

MARY MAPES: In 1988, where he was pressing him on questions about Iran-Contra, and it turned into sort of a yelling match. And I think there has been bad blood on the part of the Bush folks for a long time.

AMY GOODMAN: And remind folks what Iran-Contra was.

MARY MAPES: Oh, good lord.

AMY GOODMAN: You come from the corporate media, which is the specialist in stripping us of historical context, so I think you have a special responsibility.

MARY MAPES: Don’t say that. Don’t say that. Iran-Contra was a controversy within the Reagan administration, involving the funneling of funds to Contras in Nicaragua —

AMY GOODMAN: From selling weapons to Iran.

MARY MAPES: Right. I mean, it’s one of those typically difficult things to explain, that I really do think we lose historical sight of completely. We just move onto the next catastrophe, and we really don’t recognize it. And I think there are a lot of people who vote now or have certainly political feelings now who don’t remember our history, very fundamental history, whether it’s Watergate, Iran-Contra, or anything.

But — so I think Dan was very much in their crosshairs. I do think they were tremendously unhappy with the Abu Ghraib story, which I didn’t really view as an attack on the Bush administration. I viewed that as a moral story, a story about morality, always, and about fairness. And I thought ultimately it was a story that was — I know some people would wildly disagree with me — but I thought it was helpful to American troops, because I think — I had one father of a special operations soldier, and this man was also a former special ops guy, and he said, it was absolutely imperative that the story get out, because people, soldiers, were being killed because of what was happening in Abu Ghraib, not — and that the Iraqi people already knew about this. It was the American people who didn’t know, and it was imperative that this stop. And I felt that way.

AMY GOODMAN: Even in that case, in the case of you breaking the Abu Ghraib story, CBS held onto that story for weeks. Can you explain what happened?

MARY MAPES: Two weeks. We were ready to go. We were ready to a certain point two weeks before we aired it. On April 14, we were ready. But we did not have an official Pentagon response, even answering any kind of question, from a low-level person answering any kind of question about what was going on.

AMY GOODMAN: Where had you gotten the pictures?

MARY MAPES: Where had I gotten the pictures? Well, now I can’t tell you that, Amy, because then I’ll never get anything again. But we had worked very hard on getting the pictures. We had gotten a tip in February that this investigation was under way, how extensive it was, and how serious it was. And we just worked like demons, to not just to understand the story, but to get the pictures, because it was one of those stories that I felt if you didn’t have the pictures to prove it, you didn’t have the story.

It was also interesting the day after we aired the Abu Ghraib story. We got phone calls saying the pictures were fakes. So this is a favorite technique. But I think the pictures were real enough, and by that time, the Pentagon had stepped up and owned up to the truth of it. But the story was held for two weeks, certainly not the year that the New York Times held the N.S.A. story. And I think holding the story actually helped us get more information, more context, and ultimately, we got a very high-ranking general to come on camera and say, 'Yes, this is true.'

AMY GOODMAN: And that is Mary Mapes, author of the book Truth and Duty: The Press, the President and the Privilege of Power. She broke the Abu Ghraib prison story and then was fired for the Bush National Guard story, still maintains until now that these documents have never been proven false. We did the interview yesterday.

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