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The News Keeps Getting Worse for Embarrassed CBS

As Bush story fallout spreads, the network will seek an outside review of its ethics.

September 22, 2004|Elizabeth Jensen and James Rainey | Times Staff Writers

NEW YORK — CBS television officials struggled Tuesday with revelations that the network's news programs not only failed to report thoroughly on memos involving President Bush's Vietnam-era military service, but then committed an apparent ethical lapse by helping a top advisor to Sen. John F. Kerry contact a source for that controversial report.

Several journalism analysts said CBS News producer Mary Mapes' phone call to Kerry senior advisor Joe Lockhart amounts to at least a potential conflict of interest -- giving the appearance that the network had assisted a candidate in the presidential race.

The two political camps jumped on the newest information Tuesday. Republicans said it provided evidence of collusion between CBS and Kerry's campaign in an effort to "smear" Bush's record in the Texas Air National Guard. Democrats called the entire contretemps a "smokescreen" that had distracted the public from reports that Bush failed to meet his full, six-year military obligation.

CBS News is expected today to announce an independent panel to review actions by the "CBS Evening News" and "60 Minutes" teams that produced the Sept. 8 report on Bush's Guard service. It would include at least one expert in journalism and another in law, people familiar with the situation said.

In an indication of how deep concern about the issue has become at the network, Chairman Leslie Moonves commented for the first time Tuesday. He said that while CBS News "has a long tradition of responsible journalism ... it's clear that something went seriously wrong with the process" in the production of the National Guard story.

Moonves, who attended the New York premiere for "CSI:NY" on Tuesday night, declined further comment.

Stories about whether Bush met his service obligation after graduating from Yale University in 1968 have been overwhelmed for the past two weeks by the controversy over the CBS story.

The "Evening News" and "60 Minutes" presented an interview with a former Texas state official -- a Democrat and supporter of Kerry -- who said he helped Bush secure a coveted spot in the Air National Guard that kept the then-congressman's son out of combat.

The programs also showed four memos purportedly written by Bush's commanding officer, complaining that the young lieutenant failed to take a physical and then might have benefited from superiors who wanted to "sugarcoat" his subpar performance.

The memos immediately became the center of a tempest, with documents experts arguing over their authenticity and CBS refusing to disclose their source. As doubts increased, CBS on Monday identified a disgruntled former Guard officer and longtime Bush critic, Bill Burkett, as the person who provided the memos.

The network's missteps were compounded, in the eyes of many media analysts, when it was revealed that Mapes had agreed to a request from Burkett to pass his name along to one of Kerry's top aides, Lockhart.

"There's clearly a conflict of interest when [Mapes] plays both the role of the journalist and the role of an intermediary between a source and somebody in a political campaign," said Bob Steele, a professor of journalism ethics at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Fla.

"CBS is already in an extremely difficult position to explain and justify their journalistic modus operandi, and now they have an increasingly complicated challenge of explaining a further breach of professionalism and ethical standards."

Jay Rosen, chairman of the journalism department at New York University, called the new twist "part of the curious, sometimes inexplicable, decision-making that appears to have gone on."

Mapes is considered one of CBS News' top producers. She helped the network divulge reports that American military guards and interrogators abused prisoners at the Abu Gharib prison in Iraq. She has not commented since problems with the documents surfaced, with her colleagues at CBS saying repeatedly she is unavailable.

CBS News acknowledged the questionable contact with the Kerry campaign in a statement: "It is obviously against CBS news standards and those of every other reputable news organization to be associated with any political agenda."

The news division said it would refer the issue to the independent panel.

Inside CBS News, the Mapes-Lockhart conversation was met Tuesday with growing anger and frustration.

The latest revelation -- a news producer putting a source in touch with the Democratic campaign -- had some worrying whether CBS News' reputation would be damaged by the actions of a few people.

Poynter's Steele said that if Mapes did indeed make the call to Kerry's advisor, "it seems to me that her multiple missteps would require her stepping off the story at least until the independent review is completed."

CBS has not taken disciplinary action against Mapes. Some insiders noted that CBS needed her help in reconstructing how the story was produced.

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