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January 10, 2005
The Perils Of Advocacy Journalism And The Case For CBS' Bias

The Thornburgh-Boccardi report on the CBS debacle avoided casting the Killian memo story as definitively caused by political bias in its conclusions. Some of their reluctance, I think, has resulted from a legalistic mindset that pushed the panel to only state what they felt could be proven in a lawsuit. However, if one reads the entire report, the actions of Mary Mapes leaves little room for any other conclusion, and that CBS tolerated or even encouraged it also seems beyond any doubt.

Mapes denies it, but she quite obviously used her position as a CBS News producer to pursue stories which interested her. No one at CBS assigned Mapes to pursue "intermittently" the TexANG story. As far back as 1999, Mapes was opining on internal e-mails to CBS management and Dan Rather that in his military career, Bush was truly born on third base. She believed that Bush had received preferential treatment even though she never found any evidence to support this. In fact, she acknowledged the lack of any objective factual support of this assertion in a strategy e-mail to CBS that proposed working around a lack of evidence:

Significantly, Mapes indicated in the April 1999 e-mail that she had been informed that there was no waiting list for President Bushs TexANG unit at the time he entered. She posited the darkest spin that then-Colonel Walter Staudt, then in charge of the 147th Fighter Interceptor Group, deliberately kept these spots open to take in the children of privilege . . . while maintaining deniability. Mapes told the Panel that she never found any proof for this theory. (page 46)

Now, the panel (and apparently CBS) showed no shock about a CBS producer basically saying that they could concoct a story denigrating Bush while the facts indicated the opposite. No one told Mapes to stop, and CBS allowed her to continue pursuing the story.

How can this be explained outside of bias?

Instead of finding preferential treatment, Mapes conducted several interviews with principals from the TexANG that confirmed her information that no waiting list existed for pilots. She heard this from Major General Bobby Hodges, and other confirmations of normal entry from Colonel Rufus Martin and Colonel Buck Staudt. The only balancing information came from Texas state Rep. Jake Johnson, who relayed hearsay from an alleged conversation with Texas adjutant General Rose, who supposedly made the call that Hodges never took. For a while, Mapes thought she could get Ben Barnes, the Democratic speaker of the Texas House, to go on record saying that he asked Rose to get Bush into the TexANG, but he backed off.

Mapes then dropped the story, and CBS should have done the same. She had over a year to develop the story, and the only connection she could make at the time was two men who didn't have any direct connection to Bush's TexANG service. Not only that, but both were Texas legislators and political competitors with Bush.

After that, Mapes doesn't do anything significant with the story until 2004, when Bush began his main re-election campaign. Before going into detail on that effort, this timing begs a serious question, one that the CBS panel doesn't ask. If indeed CBS and Mapes considered this newsworthy outside the framework of political bias, why didn't CBS pursue the story during the first Bush term?

Now the panel turns its attention to 2004, and does a lengthy analysis of Bill Burkett and his reliability. CBS initially gave significant coverage to Burkett's claims that people had scrubbed Bush's TexANG file, sending John Roberts (rumored to be replacing Dan Rather in March) to interview him. Roberts, however, found Burkett to be unstable and unreliable:

Roberts explained to the Panel that he had asked his producer to seek a statement from Allbaugh because he thought Lieutenant Colonel Burkett was unreliable. He told the Panel that when he initially contacted Lieutenant Colonel Burkett to question him regarding his allegations, Lieutenant Colonel Burkett launched into an unprovoked tirade against him and insisted that he call author Jim Moore to get Moores permission before Lieutenant Colonel Burkett would speak further with Roberts. This struck Roberts as highly unusual as Lieutenant Colonel Burkett had already given many interviews to other media outlets. Moore approved the interview and Roberts interviewed Lieutenant Colonel Burkett on February 12. Roberts described the interview as meandering. (pages 55-56)

While Mapes had no involvement in that Burkett story, the panel found that Mapes certainly was aware of the story. In fact, Mapes headed CBS's Campaign Desk and would had to have been asleep to miss it. This becomes important when Burkett crosses her path later on, during August 2004.

By that summer, Mapes began working with Michael Smith, a free-lance Texas writer who told Mapes he had a "tasty brisket" of information regarding the story. In June, she wrote the following e-mail to Smith when he asked if she was serious about the story:

I am DEADLY serious about it. I have two other people working with me, looking at various aspects of the story, trying to find an opening. Barnes is on board, as on board as he can be anyway. I expect him to do it. The piece (if I get it) will run in early September. I need all the help I can get. Just tell me what youve got. (page 58)

In July, Smith alerts Mapes to a potential development with this e-mail:

I am close to something that the bushies are worried about; its a new angle and I have access to a variety of palace alert pilots [i.e., Guardsmen who volunteered for 90-day tours of active duty in Vietnam and elsewhere] that are on the edge of giving us something, but I think that access is closing.

According to the report, Smith wanted a contract with CBS to continue pursuing the story. Mapes' reply: I desperately want to talk to you. . . . Do NOT underestimate how much I want this story.

Again, this points up some unusually emphatic passion for a person supposedly free of bias. She had no evidence beyond that of Ben Barnes, a political opponent of George Bush, who only had second-hand information. (Barnes said he asked Rose to intercede on Bush's behalf, but wound up getting some of his facts screwed up and later retreated somewhat, acknowledging that no one asked him to make the call.) Given that she had no evidence and a lousy witness to the supposed crime, why did CBS allow her to spend all these resources on this story?

Mapes then primes the pump with CBS brass, telling exec-producer Josh Howard in two separate e-mails that "there is some very interesting Bush stuff shaking out there right now. I am getting about 4 calls a day from Austin. Re . . . his qualification and refusal of service in Vietnam, etc. Lots of goodies ... there is a strong general feeling that this time, there is blood in the water." (page 58)

Note, however, that no evidence had arisen to support any notion of blood in the water. In fact, Mapes had garnered no new evidence since her first reporting on the subject in 1999 and 2000, and yet she continued to tell CBS that the story was developing into a major item. And CBS never bothered to ask her what she had already developed, instead allowing her to sink resources into the investigation with no oversight whatsoever. Why?

By the 23rd, Mapes had developed nothing, and then suddenly hears that Bill Burkett -- who John Roberts had considered "unreliable" and had reported such to CBS News -- has his hands on TexANG documents. Where does she get this information? Paul Lukasiak and Linda Starr, two highly partisan critics of Bush. Starr and Burkett write for Online Journal, which regularly trashed Bush in its columns. Mapes recognized Burkett's name from the February reports, and instead of pursuing Burkett directly, gets Smith to approach him instead (page 60).

Why? Why did Mapes, who had been hot on the story for weeks and under tremendous "competitive pressure" to beat the other news outlets, let a free-lancer get Burkett first? The Thornburgh-Boccardi panel apparently never asked her, but the best conclusion is that Mapes wanted some distance between herself and Burkett initially. She obviously knew Burkett's reputation, and didn't want to get stung by the unstable and unreliable source.

On page 61, we get the answer with this exchange of e-mail between Smith and Mapes. Smith outlines a "hypothetical" deal for Burkett (emphasis mine):

Today I am going to send the following hypothetical scenario to a reliable, trustable editor friend of mine . . .

What if there was a person who might have some information that could possibly change the momentum of an election but we needed to get an ASAP book deal to help get us the information? What kinds of turnaround payment schedules are possible, keeping in mind the book probably could not make it out until after the election . . . . What I am asking is in this best case hypothetical scenario, can we get a decent sized advance payment, and get it turned around quickly.

Mapes' reply? "[T]hat looks good, hypothetically speaking of course."

Thus Mapes agreed to pursue financial rewards with a source that could influence the outcome of the election -- not because that person had evidence of wrongdoing by George Bush or even that he had benefitted from the wrongdoing of others, but simply because Burkett could supply them documents that would influence the election, regardless of their reliability. Mapes knew that Roberts already considered Burkett a crank after working with him, and she didn't care.

How can that not be positive and convincing evidence of bias?

Mapes told the panel that she checked out Burkett through character references. She asked David Van Os, Burkett's attorney, whether Burkett was reliable. A quick Google on his name reveals that not only is Van Os a longtime Democratic activist in Texas (and at the time a Democratic candidate for the state Supreme Court), he harbors his own Bush hatred, as evidenced by his website biography:

The Swift Boat Veterans for Lies is but a tiny piece of a schematic Rove has been carrying in his head since his salad days in Texas. Bush's Brain will die happy the day he achieves his two greatest goals. The first of these is to turn the U.S. into what is fundamentally a one-party system. Secondly, he wants the federal government to have so little money that it can do nothing to get in the way of business interests; nor will it be able to sustain any kind of socially progressive assistance for disadvantaged Americans. (via Power Line)

The other resource that Mapes contacted was author Jim Moore, who wrote the oft-cited attack book on Bush and his political advisor Karl Rove entitled Bush's Brain, a fact not mentioned in the panel's report (page 63). If Mapes had no political bias and that "she did not think of Lieutenant Colonel Burkett in political terms," why are the only two resources she uses to vet Burkett both hardline partisan players?

Later that same week, Mapes and Howard discussed the possibility of reaching out to the Kerry campaign to give them Burkett's number, one of his demands for cooperating with CBS. Rather than tell Burkett that contact between the network and the Democrats would be unprofessional, Mapes instead asked permission. Howard claims he told her no, but Mapes told the panel that he approved it.

In any event, Mapes called Chad Clanton on the Kerry campaign; once according to Mapes, but several times according to Clanton. Clanton says she asked for, and received, senior campaign strategist Joe Lockhart's phone number. If Mapes had no interest in the political campaign, repeated (and inappropriate) contacts tend to cast doubt on that assertion. Journalists don't make these kinds of contacts, as even Josh Howard insisted, because giving them assistance in contacting oppo resources isn't just tantamount to coordination -- that's exactly what it is.

Again, how can anyone reach any other conclusion that this demonstrates a clear political bias on the part of Mary Mapes?

On September 2nd, Mapes and Smith met with Burkett and finally got the first of the documents that Burkett provided. Mapes told CBS that Burkett had received the documents from someone he knew, someone who felt that Burkett would know what to do with the memos better than himself. However, Smith told CBS that Burkett claimed to have received them anonymously through the mail, an assertion backed up by Colonel Charles, whose contemporaneous notes corroborate Smith.

So we have Mapes lying to CBS about the sourcing on the documents in order to use a source that she knows is unstable and unreliable. We also have CBS allowing Mapes to run with the memo story despite CBS management also knowing John Roberts' assessment of the only evidentiary source for her allegations.

Doesn't this also strongly indicate a political bias? Has CBS ever run a non-political investigative report solely sourced by an unreliable and unstable witness, with documents that they cannot authenticate and for which they cannot even establish a chain of custody?

Van Os comes back into the narrative briefly, on September 3. Smith caught up with Burkett's lawyer at a campaign event, after which they met at a restaurant -- where, curiously, they discussed politics more than Van Os' client (page 77). Van Os did tell Smith that Burkett would need "relocation assistance" to protect him from the harrassment of the "Bush machine". Mapes agreed to take up the relocation assistance with CBS and procured a cell phone for Burkett. Van Os also expressed surprise that Burkett had coughed up the documents, negating any leverage he had for negotiations.

How fortunate for Burkett that he had more.

On September 5, Smith met with Burkett again and obtained the additional four documents that completed the set given to CBS. None of these documents, unlike the first two, were provided to the document examiners that Mapes had located to authenticate Burkett's memos. Even so, and with Van Os and others issuing warnings that the Bush campaign could have planted the documents, three of the four memos wound up on the CBS broadcast three days later.

Smith also admits that Burkett changed his story on the source of the documents at this meeting. Smith, you will recall, noted that Burkett claimed to have received the memos in an anonymous mail package. Now, when Smith warned Burkett that CBS might not be able to use anonymously-sourced documents for an expos, Burkett told Smith that one of those military guys had provided him the documents. The panel didn't catch this inconsistency, and so it doesn't note whether Smith told Mapes about the change in sourcing, or whether anyone else at CBS had any awareness of it.

Also on Sunday, September 5th, one of the document experts hired by Mapes had some serious doubts about the documents. According to the panel, Emily Will had noted the following issues with the 24 June 1973 memorandum:

1. Is there suppose [sic] to be a letterhead? Note differences in th in 111th in top line of letterhead and note lack of third line in Q2 letterhead. 2. Q2 has superscript th 3. Has the general appearance of a proportional spaced and proportional width font 4. Q2 has a comma in the date, which is not found in Q1 or any of the knowns Q2 does NOT look like a military document . . .(page 84)

Instead of stopping the report -- after being repeatedly warned by CBS management and even Bill Burkett about the importance of authentication -- Mapes basically told Will to mind her own business:

Will also recalled that, when she started to discuss concerns regarding the content of the documents, Mapes cut her off. Wills notes regarding her conversation with Mapes indicate that Mapes told her that this was not something Will should be worrying about [because] she [had] taken care of that part of it. Miller also recalled that Mapes had commented that Will was focused on the substance of the memoranda, but that it did not matter for purposes of her analysis what the facts were. Mapes told Miller that she just wanted Will to look at the signature. Will told the Panel she regarded examining content to be part of her job in assessing a documents authenticity.

That action alone gives the undeniable impression of a woman who had let her years-long desire to "get" George Bush get ahead of whatever journalistic standards and quality processes existed at CBS. Nor, apparently, did any of the CBS brass who supposedly were so concerned about authentication ever take any action based on the examiner's report. If their concern was genuine, why didn't they double-check it before the segment went on air?

This cannot possibly be explained by anything but rank political bias and advocacy journalism on Mapes' part, and the failure of CBS management to step in strongly indicates that they concurred in her aims.

At the same time, Mapes pushed Burkett harder on the source of the documents. Burkett changed his story a third time and gave CWO George Conn as the source. Burkett told Mapes not to call Conn, however, as Conn would deny it to protect himself. Mapes made one attempt to corroborate Burkett's story with Conn, giving up after she failed to contact him.

Does that sound like an objective and unbiased approach to journalism to you?

Mapes continued to display her political bias in further dealings with other CBS staffers. During the Labor Day weekend, she contacted three CBS editors in Washington to get assistance in contacting the White House for the story. The three staffers told the panel that Mapes made the following misrepresentations to them regarding the Killian story:

1) That she had obtained the Killian documents relating to President Bushs TexANG service; 2) That she had interviewed someone who served in the TexANG at the same time as President Bush who said that the documents seemed accurate to him; 3) That she had asked four experts to review the documents and was satisfied that she had covered her bases; 4) That, in response to a question as to whether Democrats had been involved in handing over the documents, Mapes said, Texas Republicans of a different chromosome were her source; and 5) When asked why she was rushing the story, Mapes said that USA TODAY had also obtained the documents and planned to publish them on Wednesday. (page 97)

Mapes also apparently deceived people regarding her phone interview with General Bobby Hodges in her "authentication" of the additional Killian memos. She claims that Hodges told her that the memos sounded familiar and that they represented what Hodges recalled of Killian's state of mind -- that Killian was angry with Bush for transferring to Alabama. But Hodges disputes that account:

In addition, while Mapes insists that she read all six documents to Major General Hodges, his notes reflect references to only four of the documents the four that were ultimately used in the September 8 Segment (the May 4, 1972, May 19, 1972, August 1, 1972 and August 18, 1973 memoranda), and he advised the Panel that very little of the documents was read to him. Major General Hodges also did not recall stating that the documents sounded familiar. In fact, Major General Hodges told the Panel that, had the documents been read in their entirety, he believes he would have remembered certain words and phrases, such as billet and the phrase administrative officer, which were inconsistent with traditional TexANG jargon and certainly would not have been familiar terms. Major General Hodges told the Panel that he and Lieutenant Colonel Killian never disagreed about then-Lieutenant Bush and said that then- Lieutenant Bush had his and Lieutenant Colonel Killians permission to go to Alabama and to take his physical when he returned.

Again, while Mapes and Hodges disagree on the content of their call, Hodges' notes corroborates him. Besides, how can Mapes seriously think that reading excerpts of purportedly 30-year-old memos over the phone to a witness could possibly authenticate the documents? And how could CBS accept such a practice when accepting a story for air? That doesn't indicate incompetence; it indicates a burning desire to get the story on the air despite the shortcomings. In other words, the political effect was what mattered to Mapes, certainly, and CBS almost as surely.

It turns out that Emily Will didn't just communicate her misgivings about the documents to Mapes, but also to Yvonne Miller, an associate producer at 60 Minutes Wednesday:

On Tuesday evening, Miller received a call from Emily Will at about 8:25 p.m. Miller told that Panel that Will said that she objected to the use of the documents in the story and expressed [her] concerns.

Miller turned the call over to Mapes, who ignored this second warning from Will. Miller did nothing about the call, even though Will warned her to stop the story, at least in connection with the documents. Miller received a similar phone call from another examiner, Linda James, regarding the typography of the superscript "th". Why didn't Miller speak up? She didn't work for Mapes; in fact, this was the first time they'd worked together, according to Les Moonves. She worked for the show. It says something significant that Miller didn't consider using unauthenticated documents to be a show-stopper.

Mapes didn't keep it all to herself, however:

Mapes called West on Tuesday evening and alerted her to the potential superscript th issue. West recalled that Mapes said the examiners had spooked her. Mapes explained that one of the examiners was not certain whether a typewriter at the time could have produced a superscript th. West told the Panel that this call from Mapes was highly unusual, and that she told Mapes that they did not have to go with the document story if they were not able to resolve the issue. ...

Shortly after midnight, Mapes told Howard in an e-mail that she was pretty much over that whole little th problem I had. No one can agree on it because no one knows . . . and if [Will] had not brought it up, I wouldnt have obsessed about it. She is also the woman who started arguing with me about when Bush was in Alabama . . . I think all these people are nuts. (pages 110-1)

Now, how often does a producer working on a story that depends on authenticated documents call CBS management in the middle of the night to complain that the examiners are all balking -- and CBS management doesn't stop the story from running the next day? West never even looked into it before the story ran. Why? Because Mapes was above the rules, even above common sense? That beggars belief. The story was too important to stop, and CBS would not have dropped it for any reason, apparently:

One or more of the vetters, who included at various times West, Howard, Murphy and Kartiganer, recalled that Mapes was asked the following questions on Tuesday, September 7:

1. Does the source have an axe to grind?
2. Is there anything problematic or embarrassing about the source?
3. How did the source obtain the documents?
4. What is the significance of the documents?
5. Are the documents real?

Significantly, none of the vetters recalled asking Mapes who the source was and did not recall hearing Lieutenant Colonel Burketts name on Tuesday, although they all told the Panel that the name would not have meant anything to them even if Mapes had mentioned it. Several of the vetters explained that, at the time, they did not think that the source was the key to the process. Similarly, they did not ask Mapes whether the document examiners had put any of their
opinions in writing to 60 Minutes Wednesday.

So once again, we have a story that hinges critically on authenticated documents, and no one at CBS management even asked for a written report from the examiners. This despite Andrew Heyward's admonition earlier that CBS would have to defend "every syllable" of the report. Either CBS has no journalistic threshold for verification at all, or the subject of the report so captivated CBS that they all could have cared less.

Needless to say, there are many more instances of carelessness, prevarications, and corner-cutting in this report. But the substantial representation made by the Thornburgh-Boccardi report demonstrates beyond any reasonable doubt that CBS allowed Mapes to run wild with this story, that it followed none of its own internal checks and balances, and that CBS management simply allowed Mapes to put whatever she wanted on the air. It is impossible to imagine that CBS would have done anything like this on a story about John Kerry or anyone else other than George Bush.

Whether the panel wants to state it specifically or not, political bias is at the heart of this scandal. CBS undermines its own rehabilitation by attempting to pretend otherwise.

Sphere It Digg! View blog reactions
Posted by Ed Morrissey at January 10, 2005 6:55 PM

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