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CBS Admitted it Erred in 60 Minutes Report

September 20, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT
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MARGARET WARNER: After being challenged for two weeks, CBS News admitted today it could no longer vouch for the authenticity of memos used in a Sept. 8 60 Minutes report questioning President Bush’s service in the Texas Air National Guard.

The network said it was misled on the documents’ origin by Bill Burkett, the former Texas National Guard official who gave the disputed memos to CBS.

In a statement, anchorman Dan Rather, who reported the story, said: “We made a mistake in judgment, and for that I am sorry. It was an error that was made, however, in good faith and in the spirit of trying to carry on a CBS News tradition of investigative reporting without fear or favoritism.”

MARGARET WARNER: For more on today’s CBS admission, and the wider implications, we’re joined by Bob Zelnick, chairman of the journalism department at Boston University. He spent 21 years at ABC news as an executive and correspondent; and Tim Rutten of the Los Angeles Times, who writes the column, “Regarding Media.” Welcome to you both.

Tim Rutten, what do you make of today’s admission? Is this enough for CBS to have done?

TIM RUTTEN: I think it’s a good first step. But there is something in the CBS statement, the official network statement, that raises some additional questions or at least a troubling issue, which is that they say that Mr. Burkett tells them now that he obtained these documents from a person other than the person he originally said gave them to him.

That suggests to me — unless this first person was somehow a co-conspiracy of Mr. Burkett’s — that CBS and 60 Minutes never approached this person, did not speak with them, never confirmed Mr. Burkett’s story as to the origin of these documents. That’s an astonishing lapse in investigative journalism.

MARGARET WARNER: Bob Zelnick, would you call that an astonishing lapse?

BOB ZELNICK: I think the entire episode is an astonishing lapse in journalistic judgment.

I think there were things in Mr. Burkett’s background that should have alerted CBS to the possibility of fraud. I think that they never authenticated the documents through their own authenticators, when they started to receive caveats from those authenticators, they ignored them. Then they insisted the documents had been authenticated. They attacked critics.

And then they had what can only be described as the chutzpah for Dan Rather to say, well, the documents may not be valid, but no one has denied the thrust of the story.

There was no thrust to the story without the documents. Without the documents, that report would never have made 60 Minutes or the CBS Evening News.

MARGARET WARNER: So, Tim Rutten, what you both are saying is that even if they were misled by this source, they seem to be hanging this all on ‘we were duped by a source,’ but there were all kinds of warning signals that they just did not take into account.

TIM RUTTEN: Absolutely. Starting with the fact that there is no reputable document examiner in America, at least none who is certified to testify in court – and that’s the sort of person to whom you would go in a case like this — there is no such person who will authenticate a document from a photocopy. It’s simply too risky.

I’ve been party myself to investigations involving documents where we were only able to obtain photocopies, and therefore didn’t use them because they’re impossible to authenticate.

MARGARET WARNER: Bob Zelnick, you’ve been on the inside of a major network. You’ve done a lot of serious investigative and other kinds of reporting. How could this have happened?

BOB ZELNICK: I think the problem with CBS in this case was similar to the problem of CNN in the “Operation Tailwind” story where they accused the U.S. during the Vietnam era of using chemical weapons against American defectors in Laos.

I think the problem was the mind set. They were so sure that there was wrongdoing by George W. Bush during his National Guard days that they tended to suspend their judgment. They suspended their skepticism. They accepted people, they accepted documents that they should normally and would in the course of investigative reporting have rejected. They didn’t hear cautionary voices that they otherwise should have heard.

I think CBS has to look not only outside at the sources that it used but inside at the thinking process and editorial oversight that was sadly deficient here.

MARGARET WARNER: Tim Rutten, you’ve reported on this heavily. Even if they went into the story with that mind set, CBS had to know that when you go out and say, “we have documents,” I mean you’re not just presenting conflicting interviews and let the viewer make up their mind; you’re putting your reputation on the line.

What is your explanation for how this could have happened?

TIM RUTTEN: Oh, I think it’s inexplicable. Other than the fact that as your other guest has suggested when you approach a story from the standpoint that, well, we know what happened here and we’re looking for confirmation. Or everybody knows. ‘Everybody knows’ is the most dangerous phrase in journalism. And if you begin from the standpoint that everybody knows or there is smoke here, there must be fire, sure enough you almost always find matches.

MARGARET WARNER: So, Bob Zelnick….

BOB ZELNICK: May I just add.

MARGARET WARNER: Please, go ahead.

BOB ZELNICK: Let me add that CBS owes an apology at this point in time to George W. Bush. He was the object of their report. To the extent that their report could not be verified or was based on absolute false documents, he was the victim. I don’t know what’s keeping Dan Rather from making that apology.

MARGARET WARNER: You’re saying this is not enough to diffuse this firestorm over CBS.

BOB ZELNICK: It’s not only not enough but I think as it stands now, this episode will linger as a black mark against both Dan Rather and CBS. And they both have additional work to do to clear their names and proceed further.

MARGARET WARNER: Tim Rutten, what else do you think CBS has to do?

TIM RUTTEN: Well, I think they have to do… I’m not in the business of instructing other people on who they should or should not apologize to.

But I think that CBS, if it wishes to maintain faith with its viewers, owes them a thorough investigation and then putting the findings of that investigation in their entirety before the viewers.

MARGARET WARNER: Tim Rutten, following up with you, the White House has suggested during the course of this controversy and suggested again today that the Kerry campaign may be directly or indirectly involved.

What is CBS’ responsibility now to get to the bottom of this and actually expose those links if there are any?

TIM RUTTEN: I don’t know of any credible report that puts the Kerry campaign in this.

But that’s why you need a thorough investigation: Because particularly in the hyperventilated atmosphere of a political campaign, every imaginable charge is going to be made now. So the way you forestall ever imaginable charge is to lay on the table every fact that can be ascertained.

MARGARET WARNER: Bob Zelnick, weigh in on this in terms of how aggressively CBS now has to go after the charge that somehow the Kerry campaign perhaps was involved with Burkett.

BOB ZELNICK: In my judgment, if CBS appoints a capable independent investigator that goes after the producers and correspondents involved in this and comes out with a complete story, the Kerry charge or the Bush charge against Kerry will take care of itself.

I know of nothing to implicate the Democrats — Kerry or anyone else — in involvement in this. But I think a fair investigation will disclose anything that happened.

MARGARET WARNER: Bob Zelnick, staying with you for a minute, what do you think are the lessons from this for the media at large?

BOB ZELNICK: I think the basic lesson is the same thing as we instruct our journalism students up here at Boston University. When I teach media, law and ethics and get into The New York Times versus Sullivan, the great libel decision of the mid 1960s, I say this case gave you a complete First Amendment to work with in your investigative reporting.

But unless you use it wisely, unless you use it with conscience, it can be a license for some of the worst reporting that’s ever been done. And I think that’s a clear example of what happened at CBS.

MARGARET WARNER: Tim Rutten, the first people to point out the fallacies or at least the questions about these documents were these Web writers, bloggers as they’re known. What does this incident tell you or say, do you think, about the balance between the established media and some of this new media?

TIM RUTTEN: It’s a very interesting, evolving relationship.

And I think that what seems to be happening is that the bloggers in particular are taking on a very valuable role as factcheckers, as raisers of questions, not as purveyors of reliable information or firsthand reporting, but there are an awful lot of them out there. They’ve got extraordinarily various personal and professional backgrounds. They’re quite interesting as factcheckers.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. And I wanted to say before we close that we did invite CBS to participate but they declined. Tim Rutten and Bob Zelnick, thank you both.