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THE RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE

From a Who Did It to a Who'll Get It

With careers in jeopardy, 'the knives have come out' at CBS News. Rather's job seems safe, but he's fighting to keep it.

September 25, 2004|Elizabeth Jensen | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — When CBS News named its panel of two independent investigators to examine the problems with its report on President Bush's Texas Air National Guard service, anchor Dan Rather learned their names on the same morning as everyone else.

It was an uncharacteristic slight given the deference with which Rather, CBS News' marquee asset for two decades, was usually treated. But it may be emblematic of the every-person-for-himself atmosphere that has engulfed the news division since Monday, when the network admitted what many outside CBS had believed: that the 1970s documents on which it based the Sept. 8 report had authenticity problems.

CBS apologized for using the documents, which alleged that Bush was given preferential treatment while in the Guard and shirked requirements. But the crisis deepened when it was disclosed that producer Mary Mapes had called the Democratic campaign in advance of the story to ask a senior advisor to presidential nominee John F. Kerry to make contact with her source.

Internally, CBS News appears to have moved from "What went wrong?" to "Who gets the blame?" With careers hanging in the balance and the reputation of the news division on the line, "the knives have come out," said one insider.

Many insiders think that Rather, who is 72 and has more than two years to run on his contract, will keep his job and that Mapes will bear much of the blame. She has not responded to requests for interviews.

But Rather's survival is not a given. Names are being bandied about in the corridors of the news division of possible interim replacements, although CBS News spokeswoman Sandy Genelius said it was "categorically false" that contingency plans had been drawn up.

Rather is fighting for his job. The anchor and CBS News President Andrew Heyward both showed up Wednesday at a party for ABC's Barbara Walters, with Rather's entrance in particular causing a frisson among the media heavyweights in the room. When Walters told Rather in front of the crowd that he had the support of the room for his stellar career, Heyward was among those applauding, according to a report in the New York Daily News.

Behind the scenes, however, fierce debates have been taking place among many of the division's top executives and reporters who appear on camera over who did what and when, and, in particular, how much blame Heyward -- as opposed to his deputies -- should shoulder, and whether he stacked the deck by selecting a panel member with seeming conflicts of interest.

Rather reacted angrily Wednesday when he learned that former U.S. Atty. Gen. Richard L. Thornburgh was named to the panel, people inside the network said. A Republican, Thornburgh served under President George H.W. Bush, with whom Rather had a chilly relationship, stemming from a 1988 on-air run-in, and whose son was the subject of the disputed Sept. 8 report on "60 Minutes."

Moreover, in his memoir "Where the Evidence Leads," published last year, Thornburgh criticized the original Sunday version of "60 Minutes" for sensationalism.

And for conspiracy theorists who have speculated -- with no proof -- that Republican tricksters are behind the possibly fake documents, Thornburgh has a connection to Karl Rove, a longtime Bush strategist.

Rove, who denied this week to the Washington Times that he had anything to do with the documents falling into CBS' hands, worked on Thornburgh's unsuccessful campaign for a Pennsylvania Senate seat in 1991.

A CBS executive said Thornburgh raised the issue of his book with CBS before he was picked. Genelius declined to comment on the question of Thornburgh's possible conflicts.

"We think that Mr. Thornburgh is eminently qualified to conduct this review," as is Louis Boccardi, the retired longtime chief of Associated Press, the second person named to the panel, Genelius said. Thornburgh's assistant at the Washington offices of the law firm Kirkpatrick & Lockhart said he would have no comment.

Whether or not Thornburgh is predisposed to blame Rather or CBS for the report, many inside the network nonetheless are questioning why Heyward was allowed to choose the panel along with CBS Chairman Leslie Moonves. Heyward, they argued, could just as well end up taking the blame for oversight procedures that might have gone wrong in the reporting of the story.

How deeply Heyward got involved was unclear.

Rather, in an interview Monday with the Los Angeles Times, said it was difficult to pinpoint blame for the lapses, "given the number of people involved in this, directly involved in the news-gathering, vetting and approving."

"There were a lot of people, including myself," Rather said.

The New York Times reported that Rather had said he had specifically asked Heyward to have hands-on involvement in the story from the beginning.

Other executives have said Heyward wasn't present at any of the meetings where the decisions were made about whether to use the documents, with Betsy West, the division's senior vice president, overseeing the process instead. Genelius said that Heyward would have no comment.

"Dan and Andrew speak several times a day every day," Genelius said. "It is not contentious, and both of them are looking forward to having the panel report its findings. There will be full cooperation."

Meanwhile, Rather's future may end up determined less by the outcome of the report than by the reaction of CBS' affiliates around the country, some of which have been urging CBS to make a change for some time in order to boost its third-place ratings.

A number of affiliates this week reported being inundated with calls and e-mails advocating getting rid of Rather, many of them the result of an organized campaign.

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