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How CBS' Big Story Fell Apart

January 16, 2005|James Rainey and Scott Gold | Times Staff Writers

Dan Rather was on the run, chasing big stories from New York to Florida to Texas and back to CBS headquarters in Manhattan. In less than a week: The Republican National Convention. A deadly hurricane. An interview for a blockbuster CBS investigation. Former President Clinton's open-heart surgery.

Exhausted and stretched to the limit, the veteran anchorman didn't find time that week to learn much about a news source named Lt. Col. Bill Burkett, he would later explain.

Rather, 73, recalled somewhat vaguely that he had heard from his star producer that Burkett was a "straight-talking West Texan" with a reputation as a "truth teller." Had he turned to Google, though, the CBS anchorman would have found stories painting Burkett as something quite different: a highly controversial and disgruntled retired military man who had led the media astray before.

But Rather relied on the research of that producer, Mary Mapes, as both put their trust in Burkett. That fateful convergence helped produce a terribly flawed report that said President Bush shirked his military duty, a story that would backfire and cost Mapes and three others at CBS their jobs, while tarnishing Rather's storied career.

The segment, titled "For the Record," had another ironic consequence: It aided President Bush. The roar of condemnation aroused by CBS' use of unverified documents drowned out other news accounts that exposed Bush's spotty service as a young pilot.

The independent panel that reviewed production of the story for CBS released a report last week hammering the network and particularly Mapes. It said that carelessness and "myopic zeal" had tainted the integrity of what was once considered the nation's top broadcast news division.

How did it happen?

In a series of interviews and in the 224 pages of the independent panel's report, a portrait emerges of what is an inherently messy business -- a television news operation "crashing" to quickly land a big story. The description of breathless news- hounds on the hunt might have been drawn from any of the nation's big newsrooms, were it not for a series of troubling patterns that ultimately crippled the CBS production, including: a glaring inattention to alternative points of view; the pronounced detachment of top news managers; and, especially, an extreme reliance on just one trusted individual to get the story right.

A Trusted Producer

By the time CBS aired its account on Sept. 8 of Bush's service in the Texas Air National Guard, Mary Mapes had established herself as a one of the top producers at CBS News.

Raised on a strawberry farm in rural western Washington, she had begun working in television in Seattle without having finished her communications and political science studies at the University of Washington.

Like other front-line producers, Mapes thrived by perfecting myriad skills -- buttonholing sources for information, conducting interviews, writing scripts and assembling graphics and videotape.

After joining CBS, she traveled widely in pursuit of stories. She narrowly avoided jail time in 1999, when she declined a judge's order to release unbroadcast portions of an interview with a murder suspect. That same year, she scored a major coup when she helped arrange the first post-impeachment interview with Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Mapes, now 48, agreed to take a producing spot in 1999 when CBS spun off a new Wednesday edition of the "60 Minutes" magazine that had been a Sunday powerhouse for years. But she insisted on continuing to live in Dallas, where her husband, Mark Wrolstad, is a Dallas Morning News reporter. Her superiors liked her so much that they did not force her to move to New York.

Colleagues and friends used such words as "intense," "driven" and "high-octane" to describe Mapes, whose salary was pegged at $200,000 to $300,000 by those familiar with the industry. "She radiates intensity about journalism," said Steve McGonigle, a Dallas Morning News reporter. "She is a very professional and serious person."

Mapes landed the first television interview with the African American daughter of the late Sen. Strom Thurmond, the onetime segregationist. She sealed her preeminence at CBS last spring, when she came up with the now infamous photos of Iraqi prisoners being abused at the Abu Ghraib prison. Rather first aired the photos on the "CBS Evening News."

Rather had come to trust his fellow Texan to get the big stories. And get them right. He got occasional updates on the Bush records story and taped a couple of interviews, but relied on Mapes and the others to do the heavy lifting.

Mapes was supervised by veteran CBS News employees -- Mary Murphy, senior broadcast producer; Executive Producer Josh Howard; and Senior Vice President Betsy West -- but they had just joined "60 Minutes Wednesday," and were working on their first big story with Mapes. They also gave her wide latitude, apparently because of her sterling reputation. All eventually lost their jobs.

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