Monday, January 10, 2005

MEMOGATE: CBS fires four, including three execs

For their roles in producing, airing and covering up the problems with the Dan Rather 60 Minutes II false segment claiming Pres. Bush was absent from his National Guard duty, CBS has put four major news personnel on the chopping block. CBS sacked Mary Mapes, the producer of the segment and the person who obtained the forged documents that comprised the basis of the story, and effectively fired (by requesting their resignations) three major executives: Senior Vice President Betsy West, CBS News primetime program supervisor; 60 Minutes Wednesday Executive Producer Josh Howard; and Senior Broadcast Producer Mary Murphy. The false report on Bush's National Guard service was exposed by Little Green Footballs and Powerline.

The firings were the CBS reaction to the report promulgated by the independent panel headed by former AG Richard Thornburgh and Louis Boccardi that CBS asked to investigate the "Memogate" story. The report, in 224-page pdf format, is here. More concise, and equally harsh, is CBS President Leslie Moonves's statement that explains the failure of each person CBS fired (although it covers a bit for Rather). [HT: QandO]

From the credit where it's due department: (1) CBS did not leave this story out in the wash with a Friday 5pm release like many bloggers anticipated, it publicized the report and released the results on a Monday morning; (2) sacking three senior execs and the producer who did the background work on the piece is a significant reaction; (3) the real story of why Rather took an earlier than anticipated retirement is still unwritten.

Here are some highlights, from the CBS story linked in the title:

After a stubborn 12-day defense of the story, CBS News conceded that it could not confirm the authenticity of the documents and asked former Attorney General Dick Thornburgh and former Associated Press President Louis Boccardi to conduct an independent investigation into the matter.

Their findings were contained in a 224-page report made public on Monday . . .

The panel identified 10 serious defects in the preparation and reporting of the story that included failure to obtain clear authentication of the documents or to investigate controversial background of the source of the purported documents, retired Texas National Guard Lt. Col. Bill Burkett.

The producer of the piece, Mary Mapes, was also faulted for calling Joe Lockhart, a senior official in the John Kerry campaign, prior to the airing of the piece, and offering to put Burkett in touch with him. The panel called Mapes’ action a “clear conflict of interest that created the appearance of political bias.”

* * *
A key factor in the decision to broadcast the piece was a telephone conversation between Mapes and Maj. Gen. Bobby Hodges, Killian’s commanding officer during the period in question. Mapes told the panel Hodges confirmed the content of the four documents after she read them to him over the phone.

Hodges, however, denied doing so. He also told the panel he had given Mapes information that should have raised warning flags about the documents, including his belief that Killian had never ordered anyone, including Mr. Bush, to take a physical. Hodges said that when he finally saw the documents after the Sept. 8 broadcast, he concluded they were bogus and told Rather and Mapes of his opinion on Sept. 10.

* * *
After rushing the piece to air, the panel said, CBS News compounded the error by blindly defending the story. In doing so, the news organization missed opportunities to set the record straight.

* * *
The panel believes a turning point came on Sept. 10, when CBS News President Andrew Heyward ordered West to review the opinions of document examiners who had seen the disputed documents and the confidential sources supporting the story. But no such investigation was undertaken at that time.

“Had this directive been followed promptly, the panel does not believe that 60 Minutes Wednesday would have publicly defended the segment for another 10 days,” the report said.

TKM's coverage, with links to ABC's work uncovering CBS's imcompetence and our own commentary on CBS's complete malfeasance is here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

Other reactions include: Cap'n Ed, The Kerry Spot -- which includes the 10 key defects in producing the segment, and QandO (with a great "translation" of the Moonves statement's position on Dan Rather. Powerline had not taken a bow when I prepped this entry, and LGF is overloaded with hits.

In addition, Tim Graham says the panel's failing to find a political motivation to "Get Bush" is equivalent to failing to find that humans would die if the Earth had no oxygen. Wongdoer agrees (see the comments to this post). Vodkapundit's Will Collier (who doesn't understand that Auburn couldn't beat USC even after getting a 21-point spot) is perspicacious in noting the dogs that did not bark and that "Rather Lied, Careers Died." And Soxblog says the report is a very GOOD half a loaf.

UPDATE: Powerline has John Hinderaker's response to the Panel report. He finds it condemns CBS but that it falls short on two fronts: (1) pulling up short on the question of actual political bias, and (2) CBS's coordination with the Kerry campaign. Here is the salient part on point #2:
The second issue that the report fails to address is the communication and apparent coordination between 60 Minutes staff and the Kerry campaign. We now know that there was more communication than had previously been acknowledged. In addition to Mapes's famous phone call to Joe Lockhart, asking him to talk to Bill Burkett, she had several conversations with Chad Clanton, who also worked for the Kerry campaign. Clanton told the panel that Mapes asked him what information the Kerry campaign had gotten from other reporters about the National Guard story, and also told him about the story she was working on for 60 Minutes. So at a minimum, we know that the Kerry campaign knew about the 60 Minutes story while it was in preparation. And it is fair to assume that Clanton put the most benign interpretation on his several conversations with Mapes.

UPDATE II: Hinderaker mentioned Rather's stance on Memogate on Powerline but did not mention that he took his information straight from the Thornburgh panel report. Here, from the Panel report, is what Rather said to the Panel (and it shows why Rather should have come in for more hostile treatment from both the Panel and Les Moonves):

The Panel asked Rather about his interview with Marcia Kramer [on CBS News]. Rather said that he did not want to do the interview or the apology on September 20, but [CBS News Pres. Andrew] Heyward and Schwartz asked him to do so. Rather said that he made his case as to why an apology was not appropriate and that management did not agree with him. Rather agreed to do the apology on September 20 and the Marcia Kramer interview because he is a “team player.” Rather informed the Panel that he still believes the content of the documents is true because “the facts are right on the money,” and that no one had provided persuasive evidence that the documents were not authentic.

It is clear that Rather’s joining in the apology given his role as the correspondent on the Segment and his status as CBS News’ most visible presence was critical to its acceptance. The Panel finds his comments disavowing the apology to be troubling, notwithstanding that he said he regarded himself as carrying out what CBS News felt was in its best interest on September 20.

Hinderaker is completely correct: Rather's statement that no one provided persuasive evidence that the documents were false is pure lunacy -- by Sept. 20, it was clear that no one could provide even a scintilla of evidence that the documents were authentic; indeed, as I noted here on September 17, the "facts" that allegedly corroborated the fraudulent memos had been disproven. Because the documents were the SOLE evidence for the story (all the interviews with "witnesses" were based upon the accuracy of the documents themselves), the facts were not only NOT "right on the money" they were pure fantasy.

BTW, Charles from LGF is over here b/c LGF crashed.

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