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CBS Apologizes for Its Story on Bush Memos

Documents were not verified and a key source lied, the network acknowledges on air.

September 21, 2004|Josh Getlin, Elizabeth Jensen and Matea Gold | Times Staff Writers

NEW YORK — In an extraordinary admission, CBS News apologized Monday for using unverified documents about President Bush's military service in a "60 Minutes" broadcast and said a key source on the story had lied to the network.

The embarrassing news -- which dominated television broadcasts and political websites throughout the day -- culminated in a "CBS Evening News" segment in which anchor Dan Rather confronted Bill Burkett, a former National Guard commander and longtime Bush critic who provided the material. Under Rather's questioning, Burkett admitted he had misled a CBS producer about where he had obtained the photocopied documents, though he denied forging them.

As the segment ended, Rather added his own apology for CBS' flawed reporting, which has quickly become an issue in the 2004 presidential election:

"I want to say personally and directly, I'm sorry.... This was an error made in good faith as we tried to carry the CBS News tradition of asking tough questions and investigative reporting. But it was a mistake."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday September 28, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 81 words Type of Material: Correction
Media scandals -- A chart in Section A on Sept. 21 about ethical lapses and controversies in media organizations said Brian Gallagher, former executive editor of USA Today, had resigned after a scandal involving reporter Jack Kelley, who had fabricated events and other material. Gallagher announced his intention to resign April 22, the same day the paper released findings of an outside panel that had evaluated problems in the newsroom. A week later, Gallagher was named editor of the editorial pages.

The network promised to appoint an independent panel of experts to investigate how the story was reported.

The memos were purportedly written by Bush's immediate supervisor, the late Lt. Col. Jerry B. Killian, and were presented to show that Bush allegedly received preferential treatment in the Texas Air National Guard, and that Killian felt pressure from above to "sugarcoat" Bush's performance in the early 1970s.

Monday's admission was a galling mea culpa for CBS officials, who believed they had scored a journalistic coup when the Sept. 8 story aired. But as controversy erupted over the broadcast and the veracity of the memos, a story that initially seemed poised to cast a cloud over Bush instead created a giant black eye for a network that has long prided itself on excellence.

It was learned Monday that the CBS news producer working on the report helped put a senior advisor to John F. Kerry in touch with Burkett, saying he would be helpful to the campaign.

CBS officials hoped their apology and a subsequent probe would begin to quell the controversy. However, Republican critics found the apologies insufficient, and media observers questioned whether the news division's wounds would heal quickly.

Ed Gillespie, chairman of the Republican National Committee, challenged the network to reveal who created the documents, who provided them to producer Mary Mapes and whether Kerry's "supporters, party committee or campaign played any role."

Burkett said in a recent Internet posting that he had approached the Kerry campaign, offering information on Bush's Guard service, but had been rebuffed.

Joe Lockhart, a Kerry senior advisor, maintained that he and the campaign had nothing to do with the "60 Minutes" story.

But on Saturday, Sept. 4, Lockhart said he got a call from Mapes, a CBS producer who told him she was working on a piece about Bush's National Guard service that would air the following Wednesday.

She said she had documents but would not tell Lockhart what was in them, Lockhart added.

He said he thought she was calling to get the campaign's response to the story, but instead Mapes gave him Burkett's name and cellphone number.

"She said there was someone helpful on the story who had been trying to reach the campaign and really wanted to talk to me," Lockhart recalled. Mapes did not tell him that Burkett had been in the National Guard.

Lockhart said he put the number aside and forgot about it until the following Sunday night or Monday morning, when he called Burkett. He said they had "a short and inconsequential conversation" that lasted about three or four minutes.

"He basically wanted to talk to me because he said the Kerry campaign and the Democrats had not been tough enough in responding to the Swift boat attacks," Lockhart said, referring to the group Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, which had been challenging Kerry's military record and antiwar activities.

Burkett suggested that Kerry give a speech about his Vietnam service. "I listened, told him I appreciated his advice, and said goodbye," Lockhart recalled.

Lockhart said he didn't realize until recently that Burkett might be the source of the Guard memos. Asked about Mapes' action, CBS spokeswoman Kelli Edwards said the matter was "an example of the kind of thing that the independent panel ... will look into. When that review is complete, we will comment."

CBS said Mapes was not available for comment. She was still assigned to the documents story as of Monday afternoon.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan accepted CBS' belated apology but added: "There are still serious questions that we believe need to be answered, and we think they should be fully investigated."

The network initially defended its story and dismissed critics as partisan opponents. But during Monday's on-air interview, Burkett conceded that he had misled CBS in saying that he got the documents from a National Guard official.

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