Four Out at CBS; New Safeguards in Place - Broadcasting & Cable

Four Out at CBS; New Safeguards in Place

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60 Minutes producer Mary Mapes and three CBS News executives are exiting the network for their role in a discredited 60 Minutes Wednesday story on President Bush’s National Guard service.

"We appreciate those steps," said a White House spokesman. "We also hope CBS will take steps to see that it doesn't happen again."

CBS plans to. After a lengthy review of the controversy around the story, a panel recommended that the division establish a more rigorous review process for such controversial investigative pieces, and the network has pledged to do so.

CBS News President Andrew Heyward and anchor Dan Rather survived scrutiny and will remain in place.

CBS fired the segment’s primary producer, veteran Mapes. The three other executives asked to resign: Senior Vice President Betsy West, who supervised CBS News prime time programs; 60 Minutes Wednesday Executive Producer Josh Howard; and Howard’s deputy, Senior Broadcast Producer Mary Murphy.

Howard and Murphy were the top producers for the segment. Senior Producer Esther Kartiganer has been reassigned.

A review of the story and how CBS handled the subsequent controversy was conducted by former U.S. Attorney General Richard Thornburgh and former Associated Press President Louis Boccardi.

Their 238-page report concludes that "basic journalistic steps were not carried out in a manner consistent with accurate and fair reporting, leading to countless misstatements and omissions."

The panel dismissed charges by critics that CBS and Rather aired the story because of a political agenda against Bush.

But the report does blame a myopic zeal to be the first news organization to broadcast what was believed to be a new story” about President Bush’s Texas Air National Guard service.

The mistakes in reporting were exacerbated  by “the rigid and blind defense of the segment after it aired despite numerous indications of its shortcomings," the report reads.

CBS Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Les Moonves concurred with the panels’ recommendation for tighter controls. He named vice president of public affairs Linda Mason to a new post, senior vice president for standards & special projects. She will report to Heyward.

To Moonves, the problems that allowed the Bush National Guard story through the CBS News system were simple: "Steps were missed along the way. The vetting system was terrible. The star producer system is not a good one. There’s too much leeway given without checks and balances."

In creating a new vetting process for investigative pieces, Moonves said "the standards executive will review the use of confidential sources; will determine the completeness of the authentication and/or chain of custody of materials received from outside sources, ranging from documents to video to photos; and will approve all hidden-camera investigations."

Moonves defended news division president Heyward. Moonves said that  "In the aftermath of the report, he issued direct instructions to investigate the sourcing of the story and the authentication of the documents and pressed for his staff to come up with new and substantive information rather than merely standing by the story in a 'stubborn repetition of what we've already said.'  However, the Panel concluded that Heyward's directives were not implemented in a prompt or systematic way." 

Moonves continues that “This raises questions about accountability at CBS News - questions that will have to be addressed both by Andrew Heyward and me. We intend to do so. But Heyward is an executive of integrity and talent, and the right person to be leading CBS News during this challenging time.”

Moonves also defended Rather, noting that he was stretched at the time the report was being prepared, first covering the Republican National Convention and then a hurricane in Florida. "He asked the right questions initially, but then made the same errors of credulity and over-enthusiasm that beset many of his colleagues in regard to this segment.... He defended the story over-zealously afterward;  again, he believed in a star associate with whom he had worked often, and to award-winning result.”

And, of course, Rather has already decided to leave the CBS Evening News anchor chair in March. “After examining the report and thinking about its implications, we believe any further action would not be appropriate,” Moonves says.

Despite the months of investigation, interviews and controversy, the panel did not firmly resolve the central issue: whether documents Mapes relied on for the story are indeed fakes.

"The panel has not been able to conclude with absolute certainty whether the Killian documents are authentic or forgeries.” However, the report continues that Thornburgh and Boccardi “identified a number of issues that raise serious questions about the authenticity of the documents and their content. With better reporting, these questions should have been raised before the [original] September 8 segment aired.”

"While the focus of the panel’s investigation at the outset was on the Killian documents, investigation quickly identified considerable and fundamental deficiencies relating to the reporting and production of the Sept. 8 Segment and the statements and news reports during the aftermath.”

Ed Gillespie, Chairman of the Republican National Committee, said of the report and CBS' response:

"All Americans should welcome today's report on CBS News' unprofessional conduct regarding its story about President Bush's National Guard service. CBS deserves praise for undertaking this effort in light of the concerns raised last fall. We should remember that today's report would not have come about without a vigilant public and also recognize that the vast majority of journalists are hardworking professionals who practice their craft with honesty and integrity."

Moonves was making himself available to reporters Monday, including an appearance on CNN's Paula Zahn Now Monday evening to discuss the report.

Also from the report:

"As the Panel goes back to the beginning, it is not difficult to identify a litany of missteps that doomed the effort:

• A sometimes controversial source with a partisan point of view gave 60 Minutes Wednesday the documents. Only the most cursory effort – one unsuccessful attempt to contact the original source by telephone – was made to establish the chain of custody.

• Efforts at authentication failed miserably. Hired document examiners whose views went against the rush to air were cast aside. The four original document examiners became two and ultimately one, who opined only on one signature in one document.Nevertheless, the Segment contained an unsupported declaration of authenticity.

• Competitive zeal – the desire to be the first to break what was seen as a significant story – fed the rush to air to the point where holding the story to vet it more thoroughly became unthinkable because some other news organization might surely break the story.

• The person relied on as the so-called "trump card" to confirm the content of the Killian documents was not shown any documents before the Segment aired. He was merely read some or all of the content of the documents over the telephone. The Panel finds this unacceptable as a basis for provenance of a story that turned on the authenticity of pieces of paper. In the rush to air, basic reporting suffered."

The full report can be found at http://www.cbsnews.com/htdocs/pdf/complete_report/CBS_Report.pdf

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