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CBS Ousts Four Executives Over Disputed 60 Minutes Report

The network said, that the report relied in part on allegedly forged documents.

CBS News, owned by Viacom Inc., said it asked Betsy West, a senior vice president, Josh Howard, the executive producer of 60 Minutes Wednesday, and Howard’s top deputy, Mary Murphy, to resign. Mary Mapes, an Emmy-award winning journalist who produced the piece, was terminated, according to CBS News’ Web site.

Dan Rather, who narrated the controversial 60 Minutes report, said in November that he was stepping down as anchorman of the CBS Evening News in March 2005, but has maintained the timing of his announcement had nothing to do with the internal investigation.

Given Rather’s apology and his announcement to resign, no further action against the CBS News anchor was warranted, CBS Chairman and CEO Leslie Moonves said in a press statement.

CBS News President Andrew Heyward also kept his job. The panel said that Heyward had explicitly urged caution before the report aired. After the piece aired, Heyward also pressed his staff to come up with better evidence to back up the documents.

The independent investigators — former Republican Attorney General Dick Thornburgh and Louis Boccardi, retired president and chief executive officer of The Associated Press — concluded that CBS News had failed to follow basic journalistic standards in the preparation and reporting of the piece.

The panel’s 224-page report, released Monday, found “at least four factors” that contributed to CBS News’ decision to air a report described as “seriously flawed.”

“The combination of a new 60 Minutes Wednesday management team, great deference given to a highly respected producer and the network’s news anchor, competitive pressures, and a zealous belief in the truth of the segment seem to have led many to disregard some fundamental journalistic principles,” the report found.

The network’s “myopic zeal” to be the first news organization to break a story about President Bush’s National Guard service was a key reason it broadcast a report that was neither fair nor accurate, the panel said.

The timing of the 60 Minutes story, which aired Sept. 8, 2004 during the presidential campaign, also sparked charges of political bias at CBS News.

The investigators said they could not “conclude that a political agenda at 60 Minutes Wednesday drove either the timing of the airing of the segment or its content,” but acknowledged that certain actions by CBS helped fuel such allegations.

In particular, the panel faulted Mapes for calling Joe Lockhart, then a senior official in the John Kerry presidential campaign, before the piece aired and for offering to put retired Texas National Guard Lt. Col. Bill Burkett, a critic of President Bush who was interviewed in the piece, in touch with him. The investigators’ called Mapes’ action “a clear conflict of interest that created the appearance of political bias.”

The panel said it was not prepared to declare the questionable documents as outright forgeries, but questioned their authenticity and the manner in which CBS News handled them.

After rushing the story to broadcast and as serious questions about the documents’ legitimacy arose, CBS News compounded the failure with its initial “rigid and emphatic” defense of the story, the investigators said.

“The panel finds that once serious questions were raised, the defense of the segment became more rigid and emphatic, and that virtually no attempt was made to determine whether the questions raised had merit,” according to the report.

The panel also listed several recommendations to prevent future failures, including the appointment of a standards and practices executive to review all investigative reporting, the use of confidential sources and authenticity of documents. The panel also suggested that CBS News appoint a separate, independent team to investigate any news report that is challenged and foster a newsroom in which competitive pressure does not allow the broadcast of any report that is not fully vetted.

Moonves said CBS News would adopt some of the panel’s recommendations, including the immediate creation of a senior position to oversee and enforce newsroom standards and practices. Moonves said in a press statement he has already named Linda Mason, a CBS News executive who helped with the panel’s investigation, to the new post.

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