1/10/2005

Heads Roll at CBS

Three CBS News employees were asked to resign and a fourth was fired in the wake of the report concerning the 60 Minutes National Guard memos scandal.

Asked to resign were Senior Vice President Betsy West, who supervised CBS News primetime programs; 60 Minutes Wednesday Executive Producer Josh Howard; and Howard’s deputy, Senior Broadcast Producer Mary Murphy. The producer of the piece, Mary Mapes, was terminated.
I have not yet had an opportunity to read the report. My first impression is that this seems appropriate. Mapes had been working, by her own account, for five years to try and find something on the Bush-National Guard story and come up with nothing. Then, with the election nearly, she comes up with memos. Badly faked memos, at that. If she wasn't party to the fraud, she turned a blind eye to it.

The report does have some fairly strong words for CBS News, but it stops short of stating what many people consider to be obvious: that the segment was a politically-motivated hit piece designed to influence the outcome of an election. The report actually goes so far as to poo-poo the notion:
While the panel found that some actions taken by CBS News encouraged such suspicions, “the Panel cannot conclude that a political agenda at 60 Minutes Wednesday drove either the timing of the airing of the segment or its content.”
This conclusion barely passes the laugh test from my point of view. Bill Burkett, the man who provided the memos to Mapes, had asked her to put him in touch with Joe Lockhart of the Kerry campaign as a condition for providing the memos - and she did it. On this, the panel will only concede that this looks bad.
The producer of the piece, Mary Mapes, was also faulted for calling Joe Lockhart, a senior official in the John Kerry campaign, prior to the airing of the piece, and offering to put Burkett in touch with him. The panel called Mapes’ action a “clear conflict of interest that created the appearance of political bias.”
A five-year quest to ruin George Bush, coordination with the Kerry campaign, laughably forged memos and this all present the appearance of political bias on Mapes' part? One struggles to imagine what sort of behavior would constitute actual political bias. This is probably the best that could have been hoped for. It's unrealistic to think that people appointed by CBS to investigate CBS's ethics are going to announce that CBS aired a politically-motivated hit piece based around fraudulent documents with the intent to influence the outcome of a presidential election. It's the journalistic equivalent of "does this make me look fat?"

Still, the lopping-off of the heads of some of the responsible parties will perhaps give some pause to those enemies of the president still lurking in the festering cesspool of the media. I don't think that anyone is surprised that Mapes was canned; she had long been figured to be made a scapegoat for the entire affair. The fact that three others were asked for their resignations says to me that CBS understood that a singular scapegoat wasn't going to be viewed as an appropriate response.

This brings about as much closure to this issue as anyone is ever going to see. Rather had already stepped down from the prestigious Evening News anchor chair before the report was made public; a move viewed by some (including me) as the result of a mutual decision between Rather and CBS designed to deflect some of the criticism justifiably being leveled at Rather. Mapes is out, and heads have rolled. There's not much left to do.

I'm curious to see if Rathergate is going to be the nadir of the mainstream media's anti-Republican/anti-conservative bias, or if this is just the shape of things to come. Whatever happens, Rathergate is certainly a notable moment in media history. It made "bloggers" a household word, and served notice to the media that the old days of casually slandering one's enemies are quickly drawing to a close. What remains to be seen is if they will pay attention.

Update: I expect all the big bloggers to weigh in, so I'll add links here as they surface and give props accordingly.

Update 2: The most serious problems with the original broadcast, from the official report:
  1. The failure to obtain clear authentication of any of the Killian documents from any document examiner;
  2. The false statement in the September 8 Segment that an expert had authenticated the Killian documents when all he had done was authenticate one signature from one document used in the Segment;
  3. The failure of 60 Minutes Wednesday management to scrutinize the publicly
    available, and at times controversial, background of the source of the documents, retired Texas Army National Guard Lieutenant Colonel Bill Burkett;
  4. The failure to find and interview the individual who was understood at the outset to be Lieutenant Colonel Burkett’s source of the Killian documents, and thus to establish the chain of custody;
  5. The failure to establish a basis for the statement in the Segment that the documents “were taken from Colonel Killian’s personal files”;
  6. The failure to develop adequate corroboration to support the statements in the Killian documents and to carefully compare the Killian documents to official TexANG records, which would have identified, at a minimum, notable inconsistencies in content and format;
  7. The failure to interview a range of former National Guardsmen who served with Lieutenant Colonel Killian and who had different perspectives about the documents;
  8. The misleading impression conveyed in the Segment that Lieutenant Strong had authenticated the content of the documents when he did not have the personal knowledge to do so;
  9. The failure to have a vetting process capable of dealing effectively with the
    production speed, significance and sensitivity of the Segment; and
  10. The telephone call prior to the Segment’s airing by the producer of the Segment to a senior campaign official of Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry - a clear conflict of interest - that created the appearance of a political bias.
Hat tip to Jim Geraghty at The Kerry Spot.