Did CBS News executives let their bias blow up what may potentially have
been a big story on the eve of an even bigger election? Yes, but that answer
depends on what bias we're talking about. If we are talking about the
journalist's bias for the “big get,” yes, CBS was guilty.
That is the bias that really did in the network. It's odd, too,
because the story of President Bush's less-than-distinguished National Guard
experience was, months before the election, more or less conceded. This was a
story that was around in 2000, but the Swift Boat attacks on Sen. Kerry gave
60 Minutes a new hook for a thorough re-examination of
Bush's National Guard record.
And as we've noted before, the rush to beat bloggers and the 24-hour
news operations next door with a potentially incendiary story trumped the
absolute necessity of nailing it down first.
Pursuing a political story, even one you hope falls one way rather than
the other, is not the same thing as a liberal bias that colors the reporting.
That was the conclusion of the investigative team, consisting of former
Republican Attorney General Dick Thornburgh and former Associated Press chief
Lou Boccardi. We agree with their conclusions.
Investigative reporting is by definition an attack on the “official
version” of events. Whether or not Dan Rather and Mary Mapes are liberals
shouldn't change the essence of the work: to discover new truths, right
wrongs, and upset rotten apple carts.
What journalists can't do, liberal or conservative, is take short cuts
and make mistakes. But that is what CBS did, and now regrets.
We applaud the network's strong measures in response to the report,
and we favor CBS News President Andrew Heyward's new, more rigorous standards
for putting cooler heads on hot stories. We hope those measures send strong
signals both inside and outside the company, but we also hope that the
aggressiveness that has marked CBS News continues. That is vital.
We note, finally, that Dan Rather retires from the CBS Evening
News on March 9. We assume it is just by coincidence that his
sign-off comes 51 years to the day after CBS-TV news came of age with Edward R.
Murrow's blistering indictment of the demagogic Sen. Joseph McCarthy—a
Democrat, by the way.
The National Guard story has blackened the CBS eye. But the network has
admitted its mistake and has begun to take corrective action. It's now time
for CBS to double its resolve to restore the kind of journalism that would have
made Murrow proud.