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The Fault Does Lie in Our Stars

January 12, 2005

Any news organization can trip up. And any news organization that comments on the CBS News investigation without thinking, "There but for the grace of God ... " should probably be in another business.

The errors by the network, and anchorman Dan Rather, in rushing to air a deeply flawed report questioning President Bush's Texas Air National Guard service are displayed in painful detail in the report released Monday. To its credit, CBS News ordered up the report and gave former Atty. Gen. Richard L. Thornburgh and retired Associated Press chief Louis D. Boccardi full independence. There are a couple of lessons that can be drawn from the report, one obvious (too much speed) and one less so (too much star power).

The Internet and cable TV news have created a 24-hour news cycle that presses hard against news shows with a fixed daily time, like network news, as well as daily newspapers. The fear that an exclusive story will last only a few hours is often fed by sources, who threaten to take the story elsewhere.

But more insidious, and less clearly visible, is what happens when reporters turn into stars and the stars become powerful executives while still retaining the fiction that they are reporters. Like Dan Rather.

Mary Mapes, the producer of "60 Minutes Wednesday," on which the report was aired, was a network celebrity in her own right, with large previous scoops on her record, including the Abu Ghraib prison abuses. She had Rather's stardom at her back. She had obtained documents purported to be from Bush's former Air National Guard commander and bore chief responsibility for checking their authenticity.

Mapes' response to her dismissal as the report was released was to blame CBS News and its overall chief, Andrew Heyward, for the timing of the Bush story. "If there was a journalistic crime committed here, it was not by me," she said in a bulk e-mail. She should also have blamed a culture that allowed her so much status that she, like Rather, became all but unquestionable. For instance, Betsy West, another of four people fired, was a senior vice president of CBS News. She should outrank a producer like Mapes. She was asked to investigate the accuracy of the documents after the show, and didn't. Maybe the Mapes/Rather star power wasn't to blame, but it made her job harder.

Maybe Rather got off easy in being allowed to honorably step down from his chair but retain a high-visibility reporting job. That might be distressing if we didn't think "reporting" would mean something different for him from now on. Then again, maybe Fox News should have inspected its acceptance of dubious anti-John Kerry allegations from the Swift boat veterans group. CBS at least investigated the forces that harmed its news-gathering.

The end of the era of the big-name news anchor, and the decline of network news in general, will diminish star power. But nowadays large daily newspapers and weekly magazines, which still pride themselves on a culture of skepticism, increasingly hunt for stars in their midst. Their editors should read the CBS News report twice.

The lesson, of course, applies to more than news media. That deference chokes an organization's skeptics is as clear in how prewar intelligence on Iraq was presented to the White House as in how a big network failed to confirm its facts during the heat of the presidential campaign. The consequences of such failure do vary.

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