Truth and Consequences
60 Minutes controversy looms large over TV news business
By Mark Lasswell -- Broadcasting & Cable, 9/26/2004 8:00:00 PM
Dan Rather's 60 Minutes fiasco may have started with hubris. It may have been the result of relying too much on an ace producer to do his leg work. It may even have been a subconscious desire to bring down the son of a president he had infamously clashed with. Or it may have been bits and pieces of all of the above. But the duping of Dan Rather with questionable documents regarding President Bush's Vietnam-era National Guard service and the CBS News anchorman's combative response to a mounting storm of criticism have done serious damage to a once proud news division.
On Sept. 8, Rather aired a report on the Wednesday edition of 60 Minutes that analyzed documents that purported to shed new light on President George W. Bush's National Guard service. The authenticity of the documents is in doubt, now even at CBS. Regardless of how the network sorts out its troubles, the botched story seems destined to damage more than CBS News. The scandal could not have erupted at a worse time for network news in general. When the story aired, broadcasters had just suffered a stunning ratings loss to cable's Fox News Channel in coverage of the Republican National Convention.
It was perhaps the most humiliating blow yet to network news divisions, which have seen their prestige, their budgets and their audience eroding for more than a decade.
Small wonder, in the wake of the 60 Minutes debacle, a Gallup Poll found a significant decline in the news media's credibility with the public. Only about 44% of Americans trust the media's ability to be fair and accurate, according to the survey—a significant drop from similar polls conducted from 1997 to 2003, when the number fluctuated between 51% and 55%, according to Gallup.
Erosion in public trust isn't the only ground lost. Rather's discredited story has already made other investigative TV reporting more difficult. Investigative reports are viewed as financial sinkholes by the news divisions' corporate overseers; the public-relations disaster at CBS gives accountants at parent Viacom and bean-counters throughout the industry a potent argument for edging away from potentially incendiary fare. If that weren't burden enough for network journalists, now they have to cope with the perception that longstanding allegations of liberal bias in the mainstream media have been confirmed by CBS.
The fallout promises to affect much more than just one network's reputation. As Newsweek correspondent Michael Isikoff said on The O'Reilly Factor during last week's cable news frenzy on the subject, the forged-documents episode is "a huge blow" for investigative journalism.
At the epicenter of the Bush National Guard story scandal, the intensity of the shockwaves keeps building. Several in the chain of command at the news division are in danger of losing their jobs, including CBS News President Andrew Heyward, CBS Senior Vice President Betsy West, 60 Minutes Wednesday edition executive producer Josh Howard and the piece's producer, Mary Mapes.
While the morning line inside the new division is that the 72-year-old Rather, who has two years on his current contract, will likely survive the wreckage, the whole debacle could hasten his departure from the CBS Evening News anchor desk. However, there is another school of thought that he may actually have bought himself more time in that slot because the network is loathe to appear to be bowing to outside pressure.
Other journalistic meltdowns have claimed top executives at news organizations: The Dateline scandal took down NBC News President Michael Gartner; Jayson Blair's fabrications at the New York Timesprompted the resignations of Executive Editor Howell Raines and Managing Editor Gerald Boyd; and Jack Kelley's fabrications at USA Today spurred the exits of Editor Karen Jurgensen, Managing Editor Hal Ritter and Executive Editor Brian Gallagher.
The Bush National Guard story's collapse has prompted the requisite orgy of public finger-pointing of the kind that further undermines not only CBS's credibility but that of the whole news industry. The tensions broke out in the open last week when Steve Kroft and Morley Safer, correspondents for the 60 Minutes mother ship on Sunday, blasted the show's Wednesday edition, which aired the Guard story. "These are not standards that would have been ever tolerated, and it's inconceivable this would have made it on the air on the Sunday show," Safer told the New York Times. He and Kroft later insisted their comments had been blown out of proportion.
Rather, who has covered everything from the Kennedy assasination to the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal, hasn't exactly been a calming influence within CBS either. He initially railed against the network's attempt to address the PR disaster with an investigation by an independent panel. Rather and his supporters within the network are appalled that the management asked Dick Thornburgh, a prominent Republican and former attorney general in Bush's father's administration, to join former Associated Press President Louis Boccardi on the two-man panel.
Although Thornburgh says he notified Heyward about it, his standing as an independent investigator was impaired when it emerged that, in his book Where the Evidence Leads, he referred to a 60 Minutes piece about a Justice Department investigation into an Italian banking scandal as handled in "its usual sensationalized treatment." In addition, he called his own experience with the show "shabby." Mike Wallace, among others, noted that neither man investigating the scandal has any experience working in television.
The Thornburgh appointment may have prompted Rather to put Heyward in his line of fire. The day Thornburgh was named, Rather told the New York Times that he had insisted the news division president be "hands-on" in the Bush National Guard story because it was a report that "would cause great controversy." Says one CBS insider, "Fingering Heyward as being involved in the story is Dan saying, 'If I'm going down, you're going down with me.'"
The only point that prompts almost universal agreement at Black Rock is that Mapes, the Dallas-based producer of the story, notably responsible for 60 Minutes' Abu Ghraib prison exposé, will not be employed by CBS for long. The document debacle was seriously exacerbated by her agreement to arrange a phone call between the discredited source of the memos, Bill Burkett, and Joe Lockhart, a senior adviser on the Kerry campaign, prior to the story's airing. But firing Mapes seems unlikely to be the network's sole corrective.
Speaking to the Forbes Global CEO Conference on Sept. 23 in Hong Kong, Sumner Redstone, chairman of CBS parent Viacom, said the incident would have little effect on the company's bottom line, but he vowed that the "consequences" for the episode "will be appropriate."
It's hard to know what that means, given CBS's recent track record in handling public-relations nightmares. The network's difficulties in the past year include the cancellation of the controversial The Reagans miniseries, allegations that CBS paid for a 60 Minutes Michael Jackson interview and, most famously, Janet Jackson's over-exposure at the Super Bowl. None resulted in a pink slip for a single CBS executive.
Similarly, no one got fired at ABC News in the aftermath of a bogus May 2000 report questioning the safety of organic food by 20/20 anchor John Stossel. Franchise player Stossel was forced to make an on-air apology, and the producer of the piece was suspended without pay for a month. CBS could opt for that kind of tepid discipline for 60 Minutes. Then again, wrongly defaming organic chickens is different from using questionable documents to defame the president of the United States.
Certainly, Thornburgh and Boccardi, whose report will be made public, will make their own recommendations. But what's clear even now is that the National Guard story got on the air thanks to a perfect storm of pressures that allowed dicey documents to avoid detection. Having dropped the "II" designation that made the Wednesday edition of 60 Minutes seem subordinate to Sunday night's mainstay, executive producer Howard needed an attention-grabber for his season opener. The National Guard story was a natural: Even though it started coming together only days before the premiere, what could make a bigger statement than a piece that rocked a presidential campaign? Besides, waiting on important stories almost isn't an option anymore in a 24/7 cable- and Internet-driven news environment.
Even though a septuagenarian with a career crammed with exclusives, Rather leaps at a chance to score the next big story. Producer Mapes, whom he had worked with on Abu Ghraib, seemed to be handing him a major scoop. His evening-news broadcast might be a perennial ratings also-ran, but a piece like the National Guard story would show that Rather could be a major player when it counted.
Desire, ambition and haste—and, some would say, the blindness of anti-Bush journalists desperately wanting the story to be true—created the ideal conditions for a network to put its reputation on the line for a story sold with dubious goods.
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