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Report Condemns CBS News; 4 Lose Jobs

January 11, 2005|Josh Getlin and Scott Collins | Times Staff Writers

NEW YORK — CBS News dismissed four staffers and appointed a new standards executive Monday after an independent panel issued an exhaustive and highly critical report on how questionable documents -- and a frenzied rush to trump competitors -- led the network to air a high-stakes story about President Bush's military service that turned into a journalistic and political debacle.

Now the venerable news division, home of pioneering broadcaster Edward R. Murrow and for years the crown jewel of the "Tiffany Network," must repair the damage as it seeks to restore its credibility under difficult circumstances: Its prime-time newscast ranks third among the big three networks. It remains beset by conservative critics who say the organization is driven by liberal bias.

And although he was not among those forced out, anchor Dan Rather, who presented the controversial "60 Minutes Wednesday" piece, retires in March, leaving the network in the hunt for a successor to be its new public face.

Aired on Sept. 8 in the midst of a tight presidential race, the segment raised serious allegations about Bush's service in the Texas Air National Guard.

The 224-page report, scathing in its summation, said CBS' handling of the story was flawed at almost every turn -- in the reporting that began in haste in late August, the internal process for reviewing the authenticity of documents, and even afterward, when questions were raised by Web loggers and journalists.

CBS News' problems with the story, the panel said, were the result of "a myopic zeal" to be first with the story, causing the network to fall short of its own core principles of accuracy and fairness. Although the report did not find evidence of political bias, it sharply criticized a producer for contacting the John F. Kerry campaign before the segment aired.

The panel, led by former Atty. Gen. Richard L. Thornburgh and former Associated Press executive Louis D. Boccardi, lambasted the network for "considerable and fundamental deficiencies" in preparing and later defending the story.

The story, titled "For the Record," alleged that Bush had received favorable treatment during his service during the Vietnam War era.

The story offered as evidence four documents allegedly written by Bush's late former commanding officer, Lt. Col. Jerry B. Killian, in 1972 and 1973. One of the documents stated that a retired Air National Guard general had put pressure on officers to "sugarcoat" Bush's evaluation; another indicated Killian recommended that Bush's flight status be suspended for failing to meet National Guard standards and not taking a required physical. All of the documents were said to be photocopies from Killian's personal files and were not part of the military's official records.

In the end, the panel was not able to determine whether the documents were authentic.

Even after serious questions had been raised about the story, the panel found, CBS News offered a "strident defense" of the story without fully investigating potential problems.

The news division also allowed many employees who worked on the original story to work on subsequent pieces defending it, the panel found. And the network issued inaccurate news releases that, among other things, declared that the source of the documents was "unimpeachable," the panel said, and that experts had deemed them authentic.

The panel said some CBS staffers called the events leading up to the story's airing a "perfect storm" in which multiple factors led to an overall failure of institutional safeguards. Among them: Executive Producer Josh Howard had just taken over as chief of "60 Minutes Wednesday," other producers deferred to Rather and his producer Mary Mapes, and a "zealous belief in the truth of the segment" that may have "led many to disregard some fundamental journalistic principles."

The panel also said that Mapes might have created the appearance of political bias by agreeing to put Burkett in touch with Joe Lockhart, a senior aide to Sen. Kerry, the Democratic presidential candidate. But the report said the mistakes made in preparing the "60 Minutes" report were due more to competitive haste than any political agenda.

"There's no proof of any political bias" involved in preparing the "60 Minutes" story, Thornburgh said in a conference call with reporters.

The network terminated Mapes, the once-acclaimed producer who prepared the report.

Howard and a top deputy, Mary Murphy, will also lose their jobs, as will Betsy West, CBS News' senior vice president of prime time. West was the highest-ranking news executive to be disciplined in the matter. CBS also appointed a longtime news executive, Linda Mason, as a standards czar to help vet investigative stories in the future.

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