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January 31, 2005
Inside Black Rock: A Look At The Memogate Fiasco From Within

New York Magazine has a fascinating look at the Memogate fiasco from people on the inside at CBS News. David Blum reports from CBS sources about the inside manuevering that led to the dismissal of four underlings while Andrew Heyward managed to hold onto his job, and sheds a bit more light on the involvement of Dan Rather before and after the story aired:

[After her dismissal, Betsy] West went back to her Upper West Side apartment after her session with Heyward. But [Josh] Howard chose instead to dodge the traffic on West 57th Street and return to the nondescript office building across the street that has housed 60 Minutes since the seventies. At 10:30 a.m., once the public announcement had been made, Howard addressed the 60 Minutes Wednesday staff outside his ninth-floor office. Heyward agreed to cross West 57th Street himself to join Howard; and so, after Howards brief, poignant farewell, greeted by tears and an ovation from the crowd of producers and assistants, Heyward stepped forward.

Im here to put a human face on todays sad events, the CBS News president said solemnly.

Then why didnt you get a human being to come over here and do it? one producer was heard to mutter. Many in the room felt Heywards words rang particularly hollow, given that he had not demonstrated any particular humanity by sacrificing the careers of his trusted lieutenants and friends, while managing to preserve his own. When Heyward stopped speaking, he was met with stony silence.

The sour mood at Black Rock doesn't stop at the door of the division president, either. Employees see Les Moonves as someone more interested in the bottom line than in the welfare of the division. Heyward kept costs in line, and so Moonves spared him, allowing Heyward to sacrifice his friends instead. Even outside of Black Rock, that has been widely acknowledged as a cowardly move:

Moonves calculated that by removing four top journalists from their jobs at CBS News, hed be perceived as a decisive executive unafraid to punish those who jeopardized the news divisions reputation. In the short run, his strategy worked; front-page stories around the country proclaimed that CBS News had cleaned up its mess. But in the weeks that followed, it has become clear that Moonves failed to comprehend or address the more subtle truths revealed in the investigation. He neglected to consider that Betsy West, Heywards deputy for seven years, would never do anything not mandated by her bossand that most of their daily contact was verbal, not through e-mail, rendering Heywards written posture of outrage relatively meaningless. He failed to credit Josh Howards gutsy e-mail proposing a public admission of a possible mistake less than 48 hours after the story aired.

Dan Rather remains a polarizing figure in the halls at CBS, too. The full Thornburgh-Boccardi report damned Rather in its details, showing that he had much more involvement in producing, and later protecting, the story. Even if Moonves could keep that from the civilians in the audience with a bit of post-panel spin, the veterans of broadcast news know differently after reading the report:

Some at CBS remain particularly upset by Rathers conduct, both before and after the story aired. The anchorman lent his enormous credibility to the story, and seemed to have pushed his normally sharp reportorial instincts aside to get it on the air. The vague public statement from Rather that followed the commissions findings failed to contain any apology, and he has continued to defend the piece despite ample reason to doubt it.

Much has been made of Rathers failure to see the piece before it aired, but that fact isnt very meaningful; hed read multiple drafts of the script for the story (written by producer Mapes), done most of the interviews, and had a thorough knowledge of the storys content and point of view. He was hardly the uninformed mouthpiece portrayed in the media.

Rather knew full well the storys implications for the presidential election then only two months away. The anchormans experience at going after sitting presidents is well known, as is his dogged pursuit of tough assignments. But Rathers reputation as a Bush hater, true or not, has allowed journalists to wonder whether Rather helped rush the story on the air partly for political reasons. Elections have consequences, the anchorman had been heard to mutter around the CBS News hallways last year, an apparent reference to his feelings about the crucial importance of replacing Bush this past November.

One fascinating, largely overlooked paragraph in the commissions report strongly supports the theory that Rather actively pushed the story through without adequate concern for its factual basis. While Rather told the commission that he warned Heyward of the storys radioactive nature, Heyward denied to the commission that Rather ever said such a thing. Indeed, Heywardonce Rathers executive producer at the Evening Newstold the panel that when he warned Rather, the weekend before the story aired, to make certain the documents were real, Rather replied simply: Of course. In a later conversation, Heyward recalled Rathers saying he did not want to lose the exclusive. Heyward recalled getting the impression from Rather that they were trying to beat another news outlet to the scoop.

Another juicy tidbit came out of Blum's reporting. Despite having only two members on the panel, CBS insiders say that Thornburgh and Boccardi both skipped hearing testimony from CBS staffers asked to provide information for the investigation:

The commission itself has also come under attack, largely by supporters of those punished after its findings were released. None of those involved in the CBS panelretired Associated Press executive Louis Boccardi, former U.S. attorney general Richard Thornburgh, and lawyers from the firm of Kirkpatrick & Lockhart Nicholson Grahamhad any direct experience with investigative journalism. The commissions interviews were conducted on the nineteenth floor of Black Rock, the CBS corporate headquarters on West 52nd Street, a short walk from the supersize office of Leslie Moonves. No tape recordings were made. The two commissioners and lawyers scribbled handwritten notes on the proceedingswhen they were in the room, that is. At various times, either Boccardi or Thornburgh were said to be absent from interviews with witnesses. It seemed to the panels critics an oddly casual approach for a commission with a mandate to investigate unscrupulous journalistic practices.

This may explain why the panel seemed so reluctant to make the judgments supposedly asked of it by CBS News. They took no recordings, relied on handwritten notes, and forced people to talk to them while being just steps away from Les Moonves' office. Thornburgh and Boccardi didn't even bother to attend all of these sessions themselves. How many did they actually attend? Whose testimony did they miss? It seems strange that the only two investigators would simply skip out on the investigation -- unless its outcome had already been established.

The more of the details we learn of the Memogate story and the CBS investigation, the shabbier it looks. I don't think that Heyward's resignation is enough anymore. It's time for Sumner Redstone to call Moonves and inform him that the responsibility for this fiasco has been elevated, and that he can pick up Andrew Heyward on his way out the door. (via RatherBiased)

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at January 31, 2005 6:59 AM

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New York Magazine has a great article that looks behind the curtain at CBS News into what happened after the Thornberg Report that demonstrated how badly CBS News had handled the false story about President Bush's Air National Guard service. (Hat tip:... [Read More]

Tracked on February 1, 2005 9:59 AM

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