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Scandal proof
The CBS report documents the latest in a long string of media misdeeds. You can bet it won’t be the last.

Media scandals come along so regularly these days that whenever the latest unravels, the overwhelming feeling is one of déjà vu. And so it was with the report released Monday on how CBS News managed to screw up the entirely true story that George W. Bush had used his privileged position to get into — and then later to get out of — the Texas Air National Guard. To no one’s surprise, producer Mary Mapes was fired. Three of her superiors were ordered to resign. And the two biggest fish — celebrity anchor Dan Rather, the on-air face of the National Guard story, and CBS News president Andrew Heyward — swam away with barely a scratch. For now.

Paging through Tuesday morning’s papers was like walking into a hall of mirrors. The New York Times, which led page one with the CBS report, is still trying to regain its credibility after several years of flawed journalism, from its persecution of former Los Alamos scientist Wen Ho Lee to its uncritical (and wrong) articles on Iraq’s weapons capabilities and terrorist ties in the months leading up to the war. As we all know, the Times’ most notorious failing came to light in the spring of 2003, when it was learned that the paper had allowed a serial fabricator and plagiarist named Jayson Blair to run amok for many months, despite more warning signs than are typically posted outside a nuclear power plant.

The Boston Globe made CBS its lead story on Tuesday, some eight and a half years after it dumped star columnists Patricia Smith and Mike Barnicle for making things up — and, in Barnicle’s case, for plagiarizing, too. USA Today, which ran its CBS article below the fold, is the former employer of foreign correspondent Jack Kelley, whose numerous offenses against the truth include an account of a suicide bombing in Jerusalem in which he claimed to have observed severed heads rolling by with their eyes still blinking. His editors removed the obviously phony detail but let the rest of the article go, and it damn near won Kelley a Pulitzer Prize. Moving right along, the Washington Post played CBS as its off-lead, on the upper left. The Post, of course, was where the modern media scandal might be said to have begun. In 1981, Janet Cooke won a Pulitzer for her reporting on "Jimmy," an eight-year-old heroin addict. She had to give back the prize — and leave the paper — after it turned out that Jimmy didn’t exist.

Juxtaposed against such extravagance, the CBS scandal seems pedestrian. Dan Rather, Mary Mapes, and company didn’t make anything up, or steal someone else’s work. Instead, the network — principally Mapes, a star producer (TV-talk for off-air reporter) — ignored numerous warning signs that documents she’d obtained regarding Bush’s National Guard service were not genuine, and then went into full Nixonian cover-up mode as soon as her mistake was revealed. (If, that is, you accept that she even made a mistake. In a statement released in response to the CBS report, Mapes says she continues to believe the documents had been "thoroughly examined and corroborated.")

Seth Mnookin, who wrote about the fall of Jayson Blair and Times executive editor Howell Raines in his book Hard News (see "Don’t Quote Me," News and Features, November 26, 2004), says Mapes certainly doesn’t come across in the report as another Blair. "The thing that struck me is that everyone who has ever worked with her talks about how responsible and conscientious and hard-working she is. And obviously something doesn’t seem to jibe with that in this case," Mnookin says. Instead, he notes, Mapes is portrayed as someone who was "caught up in a story that she thought was going to be really hot and really convincing, and who then made some bad decisions."

If Mapes is not Jayson Blair, neither, it seems, can Andrew Heyward be compared to Raines. Heyward, like Raines, has kept his job in the immediate aftermath of the investigation, but would appear to be in a precarious position. Raines eventually had to go, Mnookin observes, because his indulgence of the inexperienced, erratic Blair was seen as just one symptom of his destructively autocratic rule.

"My sense is that there is not the kind of internal resentment and frustration with regards to Andrew Heyward’s leadership that there was about Howell," Mnookin says, although he cautions that his knowledge of CBS News’s internal culture is limited. He adds: "If it’s still a huge story a week from now, then I think we might be having a different conversation."

That’s not to say that the mistakes made by Mapes and others in their September 8, 2004, segment on 60 Minutes Wednesday weren’t significant. They were. What’s clear in the 224-page report — produced by an outside panel headed by former US attorney general Richard Thornburgh and retired Associated Press president Louis Boccardi — is that Mapes never had any reason to believe the four memos she’d received were the real thing. Supposedly written by the late lieutenant colonel Jerry Killian, they came under fire from conservative bloggers, and later from mainstream news organizations such as ABC News and the Washington Post, almost as soon as CBS posted them on its Web site. The reason: the typography bore a striking resemblance to what could be produced on a personal computer using Microsoft Word’s default settings, and not to anything that would have rolled out of the sort of electric typewriters generally used in the early 1970s.

The panel doesn’t rule out the chance that the documents were authentic. And, of course, it’s possible — maybe even likely, given the testimony of Killian’s former secretary, Marian Carr Knox — that someone, for reasons unknown, retyped the genuine memos, perhaps to cover his tracks. But the journalistic standard isn’t whether the memos can be proven fake; the standard is whether Mapes took the proper steps to ensure that they were real. She didn’t do that. According to the Thornburgh-Boccardi report, she even failed to make any attempt to contact a retired National Guard officer in Germany who her source, retired lieutenant colonel Bill Burkett, told her had provided the documents to him. (A lie, as it turns out.)

Given such slovenliness, the most significant unanswered question is why Heyward and Rather kept their jobs. With Rather, the answer seems clear enough. He had been overworked, covering the Republican National Convention and the Florida hurricanes, and had barely vetted the documents shown him by Mapes, whom he knew and trusted completely. Still, that doesn’t excuse Rather for the untruthful defenses he offered on the air on several occasions before he finally issued an apology during his September 20 newscast — an act undermined by his statement to the Thornburgh-Boccardi panel that he’d been pressured into it, and that he still believes the documents are authentic. "The Panel finds his comments disavowing the apology to be troubling, notwithstanding that he said he regarded himself as carrying out what CBS News felt was in its best interest," the report says.

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Issue Date: January 14 - 20, 2005
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