CBS News Executives Ousted Over National Guard Scandal
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TERENCE SMITH: Joining me now are independent panel members Richard Thornburgh, the former U.S. Attorney General, and Louis Boccardi, former president and CEO of the Associated Press. Welcome to you both. Dick Thornburgh, after three plus months of looking at this matter, what jumps out at you as the key explanation as to why CBS handled this story the way it did?
RICHARD THORNBURGH: If you’re looking for a villain in this story, we have one. It’s haste; the haste with which this program was put together short cut a lot of the necessary vetting that had to be done in order to authenticate the whole process.
TERENCE SMITH: Lou Boccardi, what would explain that haste in your view? I know these to be veteran journalists; I knew them when I worked at CBS years ago. What would have brought them to rush to air, in effect?
LOUIS BOCCARDI: The fundamental instinct at play was competitive. There were other news organizations chasing the same story; in fact, chasing some of these very documents that have become so controversial, and they didn’t want to be beaten on the story. It’s that simple.
TERENCE SMITH: And yet they knew how sensitive a story it would be, coming as it did, in the middle of a campaign.
LOUIS BOCCARDI: Of course, they did, and that’s of course, what should have raised all of the careful checking of all the points that you have to get through to get a story to air, and that didn’t happen.
TERENCE SMITH: Dick Thornburgh, you mentioned in your report what you described as the great deference accorded the anchor, Dan Rather, and the producer, Mary Mapes, who had a very good reputation at CBS. Did that lead you to conclude that management to some degree accepted the report on faith?
RICHARD THORNBURGH: I wouldn’t go so far as to say that. Clearly and understandably a great deal of deference was shown towards Mary Mapes, who had a distinguished record of accomplishment in the journalism field. Dan Rather was and is the face of CBS.
By the same token, you had a fresh new production team in charge at CBS Wednesday 60 Minutes, and I think the combination of having a new team on the field with the – dealing with a highly respected duo in the Mapes/Rather team tended to create a gap in terms of the kind of critical examination that should have been undertaken of this report.
TERENCE SMITH: Lou Boccardi, you have checked out many stories over the years at the Associated Press. Were you startled by what you learned in the course of this investigation?
LOUIS BOCCARDI: I think I was surprised by the many questions that essentially were unanswered or insufficiently answered when they went on the air on the night of Sept. 8. People around me at AP probably got tired of hearing me say, “Don’t fall in love with the story.”
And that was simply a caution that when you get a little bit too enthusiastic, you know, too sure you’re right, you stop looking for the pitfalls or for the signs that maybe you’re not as right as you think you are. And I think some of that happened here.
TERENCE SMITH: Dick Thornburgh, there certainly have been repeated allegations of political bias or motivation behind the story. And in your report you say that certain actions by CBS could even be read that way. What actions?
RICHARD THORNBURGH: We think that those in charge of producing this segment were insensitive to perceptions that they relied to such a great extent upon people with a known bias against President Bush and did not disclose in some cases what those biases were. The background of the principal source was replete with efforts taken to discredit President Bush and his National Guard duty.
But probably the worst exercise of judgment was in the contact between Mary Mapes, the producer, and the John Kerry campaign. She had a conversation with a couple of people in the press operation there; she attempted to put them in touch with her principal source, and I think both within and without CBS that was a subject of universal criticism, which we joined in, because it wasn’t appropriate for a political campaign to be in touch with a network news program during the height of a very highly-contested presidential campaign. It just didn’t wash.
LOUIS BOCCARDI: Terry, if I could -
TERENCE SMITH: Yes, please.
LOUIS BOCCARDI: — supplement that just a little bit, on this question of the source, you know, reporters all the time take material, information, comments from people who don’t like the other guy; that’s fundamental to reporting.
But when you get material like this that comes clearly from one corner of the picture, legitimate as those in that corner think their point of view is, that just raises the ante journalistically on what else you have to do.
It raises the ante in this specific case on the authentication process, what the experts were going to say about the documents; it raises the ante on determining much more clearly where do these things come from, how did this source that we got them from, how did he get them, and what’s that chain of custody? And those things didn’t happen here.
TERENCE SMITH: And yet you found the idea of a producer contacting the Kerry campaign on the part of the source as clearly inappropriate, is that right?
LOUIS BOCCARDI: Absolutely. To me that was one of the easiest questions we dealt with in a very complicated story that I don’t see any way that you can justify that.
TERENCE SMITH: Dick Thornburgh, despite this and despite the examples you just cited, your report does not conclude that a political bias motivated either the content or the timing of the report. Why not?
RICHARD THORNBURGH: We didn’t want to make the same mistake that was made in the original broadcast, that is to state an assertion that we couldn’t prove. You have to remember that there were a lot of other news organizations in pursuit of this same story and we could no longer – or not more properly make an allegation against CBS of political bias than we could against those other organizations.
The fact of the matter is that we could not get enough sense that there was, in fact, a political bias involved here to include that in our conclusions. We tried to be very careful to stick to what we had in the way of evidence and facts that might prove anything we said in this report.
TERENCE SMITH: How deeply, Mr. Thornburgh, was Dan Rather involved in this reporting of the story, from your study and your investigation?
RICHARD THORNBURGH: Interestingly enough, his involvement in the original production was minimal. It was only in the aftermath that he assumed what we thought was an overzealous defense of the program as initially aired and aired some exaggerations and misrepresentations about the original broadcast.
But the strongest indictment of Mr. Rather’s conduct comes out of his own mouth. He said 12 days after the program when CBS was obliged to apologize for the segment, “I didn’t dig hard enough, long enough, didn’t ask enough of the right questions.” That could well be spoken on behalf of most the folks involved in this effort.
TERENCE SMITH: And yet, Lou Boccardi, 12 days is a long time, and for those 12 days the network, as you point out in your report, produced a number of subsequent pieces that tended to reinforce the authenticity of the documents and the accuracy of its initial report. What, in your judgment, from your investigation was going on there? Why the — what you called — rigid defense for so long?
LOUIS BOCCARDI: A couple of things were going on. First of all this defense was essentially in the hands of the folks who had done the original program, and we point in our recommendations to that as a mistaken way to deal with a serious challenge to a serious investigative story.
So the very folks who had done the original were doing news reports aimed at supporting the original, as opposed to finding out whether there was any criticism with the original. A second thing going on was that those people still fervently believed in what they had reported, and you have the old journalistic standby of – we stand by our story – and that doesn’t work if you don’t have the proof. And, as it turns out, they didn’t have the proof.
And so when the ground started to shift on this toward the end of this 12-day period, CBS had done very little investigative reporting, new reporting of its own to look back and examine what some of these critics had been saying; they did virtually none. They looked for experts who agreed with them. And if you didn’t agree with them, well, then CBS wasn’t too interested in you. That’s not by any standard a sound way to deal with the challenge to the original report.
And it got so bad that at one point the producer of the evening news said, no more; if anything is going to go on our air, that is the evening news program, it’s going to pass through the hands and the vetting and all of that of the evening news staff, not just those who are engaged in the original production, and so one of our recommendations is that any time there is such a challenge that the reporting be done not just by the original people who would have to participate, but by fresh eyes.
TERENCE SMITH: Okay. Lou Boccardi and Richard Thornburgh, thank you both very much.
TERENCE SMITH: Joining us now for the network’s reaction is Linda Mason, who was named today to the new position of senior vice president for standards and special projects.
Linda Mason, welcome. Tell me, do you and the management at CBS accept the conclusions and the criticisms that were made in the report issued today?
LINDA MASON: Absolutely. Lou Boccardi and Dick Thornburgh and the staff did an incredible job of tracing down every element of the story, and the report that’s delivered today and that has been made public today is very embarrassing to those of us at CBS News that it’s going to serve to raise the consciousness of everybody here on how we have to do things better.
TERENCE SMITH: In fact, some of the criticisms are very harsh, and we heard from them about that, but I wonder what you as a longtime veteran of CBS News thinks essentially went wrong here.
LINDA MASON: I think it was a question, as they say, of an overzealous reporter who was highly regarded, who had a passion for a story and went to cover it, a brand new management who looked up to this producer as a star and didn’t question as carefully as they might have.
TERENCE SMITH: And yet of course it also went through the hands of and was vetted by Dan Rather, one of your certainly most senior figures at the network, so I’m still wondering what would have caused such experienced people to rush something on the air that they must have known was not as thoroughly checked as it should have been.
LINDA MASON: I don’t think they knew how thoroughly unchecked it was, and as far as Dan, he was busy doing the Republican Convention.
And then he flew to Florida to do the hurricane and he flew out of Florida on that Sunday, having been blown about by Hurricane Frances I think it was, to do an interview at 10:30 at night in Texas and then came back in the wee hours of Monday morning, Labor Day, to cover the Clinton bypass operation, and then he did another interview, so he was not as involved as he should have been. The panel points that out and we agree.
TERENCE SMITH: The panel writes about what they call a “myopic zeal” to be first with this story. Do you agree with that, and secondly, did CBS feel that other news organizations were breathing down their neck?
LINDA MASON: I think that the story was sold as other news organizations were breathing down our neck, and the panel makes a recommendation which we totally accept that we’re going to be willing to miss breaking a story until it’s vetted inaccurate.
I go back to the case of the elections in 2000 where so many things went wrong. We did a study; we put into effect a lot of changes at CBS News and in 2004, our election coverage was right on the mark. So I think that we can correct from this and go forward and be a much stronger and better organization.
TERENCE SMITH: The panel has talked about the whole question of whether there was any political motivation in this report and in fact in their report they say that certain actions such as the producer putting the Kerry campaign in touch with a source were clearly inappropriate, on the one hand, and could be considered to be politically motivated. How comfortable are you with that criticism?
LINDA MASON: I think in a very tight political campaign which this was to go to one of the campaigns and to put a source in touch certainly seems overtly political. It was in the interest I think of having the source give them more documentation.
But whatever the reason it was absolutely the wrong thing to do. And, you know, in our standards we say you can’t be involved with a campaign, and now we’re going to look more closely to see what else we have to say. It’s one of those things you would never imagine.
TERENCE SMITH: The report also found that, as you suggested, that Dan Rather wasn’t as involved as he should have been. It’s been widely reported that this whole affair has moved up his departure from the anchor chair by about a year. He’s now scheduled to step down from that role in March. Is that correct, that it was in fact moved up?
LINDA MASON: Dan had been talking with management since this summer about when would be a good time to step down, and he decided that in March when he’d have his 24th anniversary would be a good time, and he announced that late November/early December.
He didn’t – when he decided, he didn’t want to get in the way of Tom’s retirement – Tom Brokaw – so he waited a week and announced that. I think it was in the works long before this had happened.
TERENCE SMITH: Linda Mason, thank you very much for giving us your views.
LINDA MASON: Thank you, Terry.