- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 21, 2004

Journalists and campaign officials can mix like nitric acid and glycerin: The clandestine relationship between CBS News and the Kerry campaign ultimately could prove explosive for network and candidate alike.

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry’s top adviser Joe Lockhart admitted Monday that on the advice of CBS producer Mary Mapes, he chatted with retired Lt. Col. Bill Burkett, the man who sent anchorman Dan Rather bogus documents meant to humiliate President Bush.

Although Mr. Lockhart insisted that the conversation was innocent, the link between political party and network was made

“It created an ethical minefield. It was both unwise and unprofessional for Mapes to act as an intermediary between a source and Kerry’s senior advisor,” said Robert Steele, a journalism-values expert with the Florida-based Poynter Institute.

Ron Faucheux, publisher of Campaigns & Elections magazine, said: “This kind of relationship between a campaign official and the press is always dangerous. Unless both sides can guarantee the exchange is totally transparent before the public, the entire thing can backfire.”

But there was little transparency about the conversation, which took place Sept. 4 and remained a secret for weeks. Mr. Lockhart’s admission quickly translated into news stories that questioned the credibility of CBS and the Democratic Party yesterday.

“CBS arranged for meeting with Lockhart,” a USA Today headline read yesterday.

“At the suggestion of a ‘CBS News’ producer, a top adviser to John Kerry talked to the man at the center of the National Guard ‘memogate’ imbroglio,” Fox News noted.

CBS’ handling of the story also raises questions about whether the network’s investigation of the controversy will be fair.

Sumner Redstone, a self-described “liberal Democrat” and chairman of CBS parent company Viacom, donated $50,000 to Democrats in the past six years. Eight of Viacom’s 13 board members also are Democrats.

“The political affiliation of Viacom’s board and senior management could undercut the credibility” of any investigation, the New York Sun noted.

Then, there is the political persuasion of producer Mrs. Mapes, who had “embarrassed” her own father because of her liberal leanings, according to Seattle radio station KIRO.

She engineered Mr. Rather’s memo story over Labor Day, lining up experts and the suspect documents. She also produced “Dan Rather’s other big scoop” — the expose of Abu Ghraib prison, which prompted endless negative media coverage of the Bush administration and U.S. military officials earlier this year.

Now Mrs. Mapes is the subject of news reports, inspiring “ethical questions about CBS’ handling of material potentially damaging to the Republican president,” according to USA Today.

CBS has yet to announce whether it plans to discipline Mr. Rather or Mrs. Mapes.

“Campaign people and broadcasters can never be too careful in their dealings with one another,” Mr. Faucheux said. “Campaigns will push everything they can to get their message across. But media people must be wary, and make sure the information they go with is accurate, and vetted in the proper, ethical manner.”

Contact Jennifer Harper at [email protected] or 202/636-3085.

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