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In the Rush for a Scoop, CBS Found Trouble Fast

Its report on Bush's Guard service offers a cautionary tale in an age of growing competition.

September 18, 2004|Josh Getlin, Elizabeth Jensen and Scott Collins | Times Staff Writers

NEW YORK — It was 11 a.m. on Sept. 8 -- nine hours before "60 Minutes" was to air. But as news executives debated whether to broadcast a story on newly obtained paperwork offering fresh evidence about President Bush's National Guard service, a big question hung over CBS News' Westside headquarters: Were the photocopied documents real or fake?

Suddenly, the answer seemed to materialize, and from an unlikely source -- the White House itself.

John Roberts, the network's White House correspondent, called to report he'd just completed an on-camera interview with Dan Bartlett, the White House communications director. Bartlett, it appeared, had no quarrel with the authenticity of the documents.

That was the turning point.

"If we had gotten back from the White House any kind of red flag, raised eyebrow, anything that said, 'Are you sure about this stuff?' we would have gone back to square one," Josh Howard, the program's executive producer, told the Los Angeles Times in an interview Friday. "The White House said they were authentic, and that carried a lot of weight with us."

The story aired that night, and Dan Rather, the CBS News anchor, seemed to have scored yet another coup in his broadcasting career. Hours later, the roof fell in.

Critics, many of them Internet-based, immediately charged that CBS had relied on phony documents from a shadowy, unnamed source. Rather, 72, long a target for conservative critics, was again fending off allegations of liberal bias. A growing chorus of media observers voiced distress that CBS had hurried a story onto the air without fully checking the facts.

And Friday evening, the White House denied that it ever confirmed the documents as authentic. "For them to suggest that [the interview was] an endorsement or ratification of the documents is a terrible stretch of reality," Bartlett said in an interview.

He also disclosed that he had shown the documents that morning to President Bush. "He had no recollection of these specific documents," Bartlett said, though the president said some of the information seemed accurate. For instance, he did go to Alabama. But he denied having defied orders from his superiors, Bartlett said.

The network said Friday that it had assembled a 12-person team that continued to report the story. But Howard and others stand behind it -- even if the documents used to support the story are shown to be fake.

The questions about Bush's military service as raised by the memos have long been the subject of speculation. They received new life with the CBS broadcast, which also alleged that Bush was helped to the front of the line to get into the Guard.

The "60 Minutes" broadcast used the documents to assert that Bush's squadron commander in the Texas Air National Guard grounded him from flying after he missed a medical examination and failed to meet performance standards. The four memos, allegedly from the personal files of the late Lt. Col. Jerry B. Killian, also suggested that Bush received favored treatment.

As criticism of the broadcast mounted, Rather defended the documents' authenticity in an unusual "CBS Evening News" broadcast two days later. But sources continued to come forward, shedding doubt on both the documents and how the network vetted them. On Sept. 15, one week after the original broadcast, "60 Minutes" aired an interview with one of the most persuasive critics, Marion Carr Knox, 86, who was Killian's typist at the time. She said the memos were fake, but added that she believed the content was essentially accurate.

"You never want to be accused of getting a story wrong, but we are human," Howard said Friday. "We have a terrific team.... However, we can get something wrong. My interest is in getting it right, if not the first time, then at least the second time."

In the crucial interview with the White House communications director, Howard noted that Roberts had specifically asked if the documents were fake. Bartlett's answer was: "I'm not saying that at all. I'm just saying that the fact that documents like this are being raised when, in fact, all they do is reaffirm what we've said all along, is questionable."

The network's new reporting will be wrapped up soon, perhaps this weekend or early next week, Howard said. More sources have come forward in recent days, and CBS is leaning on its original sources to see if they will go on the record, he added.

A behind-the-scenes look at how CBS raced to make a Sept. 8 broadcast deadline offers a cautionary tale of television news in an age of mounting competitive pressures. Although many news organizations were pursuing a definitive breakthrough on the National Guard story, CBS appeared to have the competition beat -- until its scoop became a public relations disaster.

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