Monday, January 10, 2005

In one sense, the independent panel asked by CBS News to investigate a fraudulent “60 Minutes Wednesday” story on President Bush’s service in the Texas Air National Guard did a remarkable job. In their meticulously researched report, Dick Thornburgh, former attorney general, and Louis D. Boccardi, former CEO and president of the Associated Press, outline the personal and structural failures within CBS management which allowed four blatantly forged memos, supposedly written by the late Lt. Col. Jerry Killian, to be used as evidence that Mr. Bush received preferential treatment while in the Guard. Its findings can be reduced to three elements: First, Mary Mapes, the story’s producer and chief reporter, misrepresented the conclusions reached by the document analysts, none of whom authenticated the memos. Second, CBS executives showed a devastating degree of incompetence in vetting the Mapes segment for accuracy and fairness. Finally, Dan Rather was at best a willing stooge in Mrs. Mapes’ personal obsession with the Guard story. On these alone, the report is far better than many expected.

At the same time, the report is also a whitewash. It refuses to conclude that any political bias at all motivated the story’s rush to air on Sept. 8, just days after Mrs. Mapes first obtained the memos from an anti-Bush partisan, Lt. Col. Bill Burkett. Instead, the panel concludes that the story’s inherent problems “were caused primarily by a myopic zeal to be the first news organization to broadcast what was believed to be a new story about President Bush’s TexANG, and the rigid and blind defense of the Segment after it aired despite the indications of its shortcomings.”

This conclusion, as fair as it might appear, fails to match the very evidence the panel uncovered during its investigation. Competitive “zeal” simply does not account for Mrs. Mapes’ many deliberate misrepresentations she told not only to her fellow producers, but placed within the original story. It does not take into account the fact that Mrs. Mapes, along with Dan Rather, pursued Mr. Bush’s service in the Guard for five years. Mr. Rather himself, who comes off quite lightly in the panel’s conclusions, still does not believe the contents of the memos were fake; nor does he believe that he should have issued a formal apology on the CBS Evening News 12 days after the original story aired, a move he was forced to make by his superiors, as the panel notes with concern. Competitive zeal also does not account for the many producers who were assigned to vet the story, yet apparently did so with little to no regard for journalistic standards. No one involved in the story thought to contact Lt. Col. Burkett’s source for the memos, a claim he later admitted was untrue, either before the story aired or after objections were raised. It is inconceivable that mere competitive zeal took Mrs. Mapes, Mr. Rather et al. down this dark road of deception and duplicity.

Indeed, the panel’s report confirms the very worst suspicions of those who accuse the media of pursuing a liberal agenda. While acknowledging the accusations of bias, Messrs. Thornburgh and Boccardi say that to prove that it motivated the CBS producers is “one of the most subjective, and most difficult, that the Panel has sought to answer.” They reason that “The Panel will not level allegations for which it cannot offer adequate proof.” In light of the report’s findings, this is absurd. It didn’t escape the watchful eyes of National Review Online to see that the panel did not find it particularly difficult to accuse the bloggers, specifically those that followed the story, of having a “conservative agenda,” as the report says on page 153. Instead, it takes as authoritative proof the denials of Mr. Rather and Mrs. Mapes. “Absolutely, unequivocally untrue,” Mr. Rather told the panel. Mrs. Mapes insists her obsession was motivated by “proximity, not politics,” referring to her personal ties with Texas. Their denials should hardly come as a surprise.

The panel’s refusal to connect liberal bias to CBS News’ campaign to bring down a sitting president renders their report unsatisfactory. Just when corporate media should learn that its liberal agenda finally went too far, CBS CEO Leslie Moonves takes comfort that “the mistakes were not motivated by any political agenda.” On the contrary, politics had everything to do with it, Mr. Moonves. And until the heads of corporate media understand that, they will continue to engage in the same fraudulent attacks that brought an end to the careers of four CBS staffers, including Mrs. Mapes.

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