- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Was political bias at work at CBS News?

The network devoted six pages to the question in its 224-page investigative report on the journalistic failures of a “60 Minutes” story attacking President Bush’s Vietnam-era National Guard service. The report denied a “political agenda” had been at work.

The conclusion left some incredulous.

“It’s all just bizarre. The least credible part of the CBS report is the network’s insistence there was no evidence of political bias. Most viewers could see the bias all over the story,” said Tim Graham of the Alexandria-based Media Research Center yesterday.

“There was no conservative or Republican viewpoint represented either,” he added. “Besides that, ‘60 Minutes’ has a history of producing anti-Bush stories.”

The report’s inconclusive language could indicate CBS is adopting a defensive posture against potential lawsuits, according to Minneapolis-based lawyer John H. Hinderaker, who writes for Power Line, the conservative Web log that originally questioned the credibility of documents used in the Sept. 8 CBS story.

“The report lays out facts, reaches no conclusion and finally leaves political bias as an open question — which is how it gets reported in the press,” said Mr. Hinderaker, who said that e-mails from fired CBS producer Mary Mapes contained in the report are the “smoking gun” that could confirm the presence of a political agenda.

“By not slamming the door on the bias issue, they could be preparing for potential legal action. It’s relevant to their public relations, but also to charges of malice, in the event they are sued,” Mr. Hinderaker said, though he would not identify any potential litigants. “The CBS report states their people ‘believed’ what they were reporting, and that’s almost a legal standard when the threat of malice comes up in litigation.”

CBS News fired three news executives and a producer Monday after an independent investigation found “60 Minutes Wednesday” violated basic journalistic standards when it used forged documents and failed to investigate sources that claimed Mr. Bush compromised his National Guard service 30 years ago.

Miss Mapes denied Monday she had a political agenda in producing the “60 Minutes” segment. Rumors already circulate about the Dallas-based producer, including one that claimed she had been hired by PBS “at taxpayer’s expense,” according to one source.

“That is absolutely untrue,” a PBS spokeswoman said yesterday.

In the meantime, the refusal of CBS to confirm or deny the presence of political bias is a cultural moment for some observers.

“At the end of the day, the one mistake that smacks of anything beyond zeal or procedural error is CBS arranging the conversation with John Kerry’s adviser, Joe Lockhart. Depending on your point of view, that’s either the smoking gun of bias or an unprofessional mistake of a competitive soul,” noted Matthew Felling of the District-based Center for Media and Public Affairs.

“The guys who wrote the report seem to think there was bias. Throughout their findings, they laid out examples of bias, but then said were not quite sure how they got there. This is starting to get metaphysical,” said Jonathan Last of the Weekly Standard, who categorized the investigation as a “whitewash.”

But he is optimistic, he said. The report, for all its elusiveness, can be useful to the press.

“This is a good way to out the problem people,” Mr. Last said. “I just hope it doesn’t tarnish the daily beat reporters who do get their stories right. We need to remember that most journalists are not Mary Mapes.”

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