The Independent Review Panel’s report on the CBS memo scandal is a whitewash.
The report correctly criticizes CBS for failing to authenticate the forged documents questioning President Bush’s National Guard service and makes solid recommendations on how CBS can improve its process for vetting stories. But it fails to address the institutional flaw that drove this shoddy journalism – liberal bias.
Such bias is not hard to find. Mary Mapes, a widely respected producer and Dan Rather’s trusted colleague, contacted Kerry campaign advisor Joe Lockhart four days prior to the September 8 airing of the story on the 60 Minutes Wednesday show. The ostensible reason was to put Lockhart in touch with Bill Burkett, the disgruntled former National Guardsman who had given the forged documents to Mapes. Burkett wanted to give the Kerry campaign “strategic advice” on how to respond to the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth ads. It amounted to CBS giving the Kerry campaign a “scoop” on a story that Mapes said “could possibly change the momentum of an election.”
While Lockhart said that something did not “feel right,” he agreed to speak to Burkett but nothing apparently resulted from the conversation.
The Independent Review Panel, chaired by former U.S. Attorney General Dick Thornburgh and former Associated Press president Louis Boccardi, conceded that “this contact crossed the line as, at a minimum, it gave the appearance of a political bias.”
Nevertheless, the Panel concluded that political motivations did not drive the story. Said Boccardi, “We can’t prove that Mapes or Dan Rather did this thing in order to hurt President Bush.”
Media experts disagree. Alex Jones, the director of the Shorenstein Center on Press and Politics at Harvard University, said, “I think it’s foolish to separate this entirely from politics, no matter what the report says.” In particular, Jones cites Mapes’ politics for influencing her personal interest in the story.
Indeed, there is considerable evidence that Mapes was on a partisan mission to expose Bush’s alleged failure to fulfill his National Guard commitments. Mapes began investigating the story in 1999. She worked under the assumption that Bush benefited from an alleged policy of the Texas Air National Guard to keep spots open for “children of privilege” avoiding service in Vietnam. But Mapes admitted that her 1999 investigation found no proof for such a policy.
That should have been the end of the matter. But in February 2004, Burkett grabbed the media spotlight when he charged that he had evidence that Guard officials destroyed, or “scrubbed,” embarrassing documents from Bush’s official file at the behest of then-Governor Bush’s staff.
But everyone involved in the alleged plot, including National Guardsmen and Burkett’s friends, emphatically denied or could not confirm the “scrubbing” allegations. Interestingly, CBS News reporter John Roberts interviewed Burkett and found him “unreliable.”
While Mapes was not involved in the February round of Burkett’s publicity, she was still considered by CBS staff a key resource who “knew everything” about President Bush’s National Guard service — and presumably Burkett’s questionable history.
But when Burkett stepped forward again in late August to make his spurious charges, this time touting suspicious documents from an anonymous source, Mapes immediately seized on the story. Eventually, Burkett identified fellow Guardsman George Conn as the source. Then, when Conn could not be contacted, Burkett changed his tune and named a Lucy Ramirez as the source. But if she exists, she cannot be found.
Despite Burkett’s unreliability, Mapes insisted that Burkett was a “truth teller.”
But Rather was forced to apologize after many experts concluded the documents were fake. Mapes along with three other CBS staffers were fired earlier month. But like Rather, Mapes insists the content of the documents are true.
Mapes’ stubborn defense of a story based on documents that CBS’s handwriting experts could not authenticate and the word of a serial liar can only be understood in light of her liberal agenda.
Mapes’ own father stated in a radio interview that his daughter was “a typical liberal. She went into journalism with an ax to grind, and that was radical feminism.”
Therein lies the problem. The Independent Review Panel could have addressed the institutionalized liberalism that pervades CBS by making truly sweeping recommendations such as including more conservatives on the staff. But it chose not to. The result may very well lead to the demise of CBS and the rest of an establishment media that has been losing the public’s trust for years.