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January 18, 2005
Broadcasting & Cable: 5 Questions The CBS Report Raises

Mark Lasswell at Broadcasting & Cable got no satisfaction from the Thornburgh-Boccardi report regarding Memogate at CBS News. He asks five questions of CBS that their panel report creates rather than answers:

Last week, the tortured saga of the bogus documents came to a close. Or at least the major issues were settled of how CBS News came to rely onand then adamantly defenddubious records of President Bush's service in the Texas Air National Guard in the early 1970s. As the investigative panel chosen by CBS, former Associated Press CEO Louis Boccardi and former U.S. attorney general Dick Thornburgh, reported in exhaustive detail, 60 Minutes Wednesday aired a segment on Sept. 8 that was tainted in almost every regard. But the report doesn't resolve all the questions that spring from the story of how producer Mary Mapes, with a barely engaged Dan Rather as her correspondent, rushed the story onto air. Yes, we know that Mapes obtained photocopies of National Guard documents from a longstanding Bush critic, former Texas Army National Lt. Col. Bill Burkett. And we know about what happened: According to the report, Mapes came to believe fervently in the authenticity of the documents that purported to show Bush getting into the Guard through favoritism and then avoiding punishment for breaking rules.

The panel says the producer ignored evidence that the documents might be false and she skirted the truth when dealing her supervisors at CBS as the story was haphazardly vetted and then thrown on the air. And then, when the blogosphere erupted with withering critiques of the documents, CBS News spent 12 long days denying the obvious. Rather's exit from the Evening News was hastened by the scandal. Three CBS executives were asked to resign last week. Mapes was fired. CBS announced new rules for its newsgathering operation. But the story is hardly over, and plenty of questions remain.

Lasswell asks his five questions, the first three being the most pointed and the final two more philosophical. Lasswell has interesting points for discussion on all five, but by far the most interesting are the first three. In the second, Lasswell wants to know how Andrew Heyward managed to avoid the axe -- a question that many of us would like answered:

In effect, Heyward's subordinates failed to follow their boss's instructions every step of the way. Before the story aired, Heyward specifically urged West and Howard in an e-mail to work closely with Rather and Mapes, cautioning the executives not let those two stampede us in any way. In the days after the Sept. 8 broadcast, as the torrent of criticism increased and CBS embarked on its disastrous defense of the story, Heyward ordered a systematic review of how the documents had been authenticated, raising the possibility that CBS should back away from the story.

The fact that West effectively ignored the first order and rejected the second as she plunged ahead with a strategy of hostile defensiveness no doubt sealed her fate. But wasn't Heyward responsible for leading the team and demanding results?

In most organizations, that would be the expectation. However, as Lasswell notes, Moonves values loyalty -- or yes-men -- and apparently Heyward fits that bill. Moonves let Heyward off the hook because Heyward gave the right orders, even if he apparently didn't lift a finger to ensure his orders were carried out. That kind of leadership will not inspire any kind of culture change at CBS News, let alone usher in the kind of transformation needed to ensure that this kind of incident doesn't happen again at Black Rock.

Lasswell also wants to know why CBS allowed Mapes to run with a story that essentially had died four years earlier with no new information for a resurrection:

President Bush's service in the Texas Air National Guard had been pretty thoroughly raked over during his first presidential campaign. In fact, Mapes herself had been working the case as far back as 1999 and even enlisted Rather to conduct a couple of interviews, although, in the end, she couldn't come up with a usable story. But plenty had been written and broadcast about Bush's military history by the time Mapes dived into the story last summer. And, indeed, in the tit-for-tat world of journalism, when John Kerry's Vietnam service became an issue last year, assignment editors almost reflexively warmed to balancing the equation by turning to Bush's record again.

But what they found was precious little information that qualified as news. Mapes was clearly riveted by what she saw in the documents turned over to her by Burkett, but others at CBS were underwhelmed. According to the investigative panel's report, Howard told them that, when Mapes showed him the first set of documents from Burkett, he wondered why Mapes was excited about them as he did not think that they contained significant new information.

Amazingly, Lasswell analyzes the decision to pursue the story and air the segment as competitive pressure, echoing the CBS panel. Competitive pressure to pursue a non-story for months and air a segment with no authentication? To do what -- be the first broadcaster to air a fraud? He asks the right question about the underlying motive for pursuing the non-story of the TexANG and, just like Thornburgh-Boccardi and Moonves, answers the different question as to why CBS aired the segment and used the documents. It's a slick, if disappointing, sleight-of-hand.

The most interesting question is Lasswell's first -- who created the Killian memos?

Despite the investigative panel's exhaustive fact-gathering, Dick Thornburgh and Louis Boccardi did not even attempt to answer the biggest question of all in this matter. But the report does contain come intriguing information. On Aug. 25, two weeks before the fateful CBS broadcast, Bill Burkett wrote a commentary for Linda Starr and Bev Conover's anti-Bush Web site Online Journal that included a passage with this warning: George W. Bush, you may be the president. But I know you lied based on the files that we have now reassembled. Some observers, in addition to wondering what reassembled files would look like, also speculate about who the we in that sentence refers to.

At CBS, Dan Rather may be the only remaining soul who still clings to the thin thread of hope that the documents actually came from the files of the late Lt. Col. Jerry Killian of Bush's squadron. One CBS executive says, Don't dismiss the possibility that Burkett wrote them himself. Certainly, Burkett's Army National Guard background made him familiar with military documentation, and it might explain the appearance in the documents of Army terms such as billet that Air National Guard personnel found jarring. But Burkett also repeatedly implored Mary Mapes to have CBS authenticate the papers he gave her. And, indeed, Mapes herself wasn't always so convinced that the documents were genuine. She told the panel that she worried early on that they might have been planted as a political dirty trickand she related a meeting when she raised the possibility with Burkett. He seemed genuinely shocked at the suggestion, Mapes said.

Don't be so quick to discount Burkett's role in creating the documents himself. Burkett certainly had the most opportunity; as Lasswell notes, the wording and formatting seem to coincide much more closely with Burkett's Army National Guard experience than Bush's TexANG jargon, and besides, Burkett changed his story three times on the source of the documents. He either created them himself or had someone do it for him, and the shifting stories only make sense if he wanted to direct attention away from himself as the source.

If that's true, then why does he urge Mapes on several occasions to ensure that the memos get authenticated by CBS? For one thing, it allows Burkett to pretend that the falsified memos are some sort of disinformation campaign and that he was made a patsy. That plays into his whole victim/paranoia schtick, too. But that wouldn't have been his primary motivation; he wanted to "get" Bush somehow. What did he want from Mapes? A book deal and an entre to the John Kerry campaign in order to be the big man who showed Kerry how to stop the Swift Boat vets.

I doubt anyone will ever be able to prove it, especially since Burkett burned the originals, by his own admission. However, it's the only explanation that makes sense. "Lucy Ramirez" is a red herring, and a blatantly amateurish one at that. The documents show a similar amateurishness that almost certainly demonstrates Burkett's authorship of the entire scheme.

Read all of Lasswell's article. It isn't perfect by far, but it is interesting.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at January 18, 2005 10:18 PM

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