CBS report fires 4, but fails to see bias

Posted: Jan 10, 2005 12:00 AM

An independent commission has found CBS News guilty of "myopic zeal" in its airing of possibly forged documents that suggested President Bush lied about his service in the National Guard. A 224-page report, whose chief authors were former Attorney General Dick Thornburgh and former Associated Press Chief Executive Officer Louis D. Boccardi, claimed that the pressure of getting the story before competitors, and not political bias, was responsible for the lapse in journalistic judgment.

And Watergate was a "third-rate burglary."

CBS fired the producer of the report, Mary Mapes, and asked three other staffers to resign. Dan Rather, who is leaving his anchor post in March (but will stay on the payroll and report in other capacities), was not disciplined. CBS News president Andrew Heyward will stay.

This is the Watergate equivalent of locking up the men who conducted the break-in at Democratic Party headquarters, but ignoring Attorney General John Mitchell, Vice President Spiro Agnew and President Richard Nixon, which CBS News and Dan Rather famously did not do.

On Page 206, the report indicts "60 Minutes Wednesday," saying it "never carried out basic reporting to attempt to confirm Lieutenant Colonel Burkett's original story that Chief Warrant Officer (George) Conn provided him with the documents. Thus, from the outset, it was the deficient reporting by '60 Minutes Wednesday' that was at the heart of the failures that plagued the Segment."

But it was more than that. Only those who believe the big media are unbiased and lack an agenda will accept the explanation that this was a failure solely in journalistic judgment brought on by CBS's desire to beat its partner in the story, The New York Times, which first published it.

In Section X (Page 211) and headlined "Whether There Was A Political Agenda Driving The September 8 Segment," the report says this is "one of the most subjective, and most difficult (questions), that the Panel has sought to answer. The political agenda question was posed by the Panel directly to Dan Rather and his producer, Mary Mapes, who appear to have drawn the greatest attention in terms of possible agendas. Both strongly denied that they brought any political bias to the Segment."

I guess that settles it, then. Richard Nixon said he was not a crook, but that didn't stop Rather and CBS News from attempting to prove he was. How serious can one take a report that relies strictly on the testimony of the chief "suspects" that they had no political agenda?

Burkett certainly had a history of anti-Bush activities and statements, and Rather's anti-Republican pronouncements are legion and well-chronicled. The Wall Street Journal's John Fund wrote a piece for Opinion Oct. 4 in which he quoted a former colleague of Mapes at KIRO-TV in Seattle, Susan Hutchison, as saying that Mapes "went into journalism to change society. She always was very, very cause-oriented."

Fund also quoted Lou Guzzo, a former KIRO news commentator who served as counselor to the late Gov. Dixy Lee Ray, a liberal Democrat. Guzzo said he has no problem with advocates in journalism, "but if you're as liberal and activist as Mary and work on the news rather than the opinion side, it creates problems."

It certainly does and has for Mapes, for CBS News and for all of journalism, which continues to be distrusted by a significant percentage of the public precisely because many believe the media do, in fact, have an agenda and that it mostly favors Democrats and liberal political and social ideology.

The Thornburgh-Boccardi report says, "It should be noted that '60 Minutes Wednesday' was hardly alone in pursing this story. Other mainstream media, including USA Today, The New York Times and the Associated Press, were pursing the same story in what was clearly a competitive race to be first."

What is this, a doctrine of "innocent by association"? That other media organs were pursing the same story - a story that had been worked on for years by Mary Mapes, who suddenly thought she had enough to justify going with it just before a national election - is not an excuse, or even a satisfactory explanation for CBS's decision to broadcast it.

Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism (now there's a worthy, but probably unattainable goal), had it right when he commented that the report  doesn't say what CBS will do to change the climate that led to this outrage.

While the report recommends certain structural changes within the news division, such as naming a standards and practices executive, reducing competitive pressure, telling senior management the names of confidential sources and appointing a separate team to look into disputed news reports, there were no recommendations about changing the ideological biases inherent at CBS News.

CBS won't say if it will act on those recommendations, because CBS sees no bias, hears no bias and speaks no bias. End of story. But the public sees it, which is one reason why CBS News remains dead last in the ratings.