CBS News has asked three news executives to resign and fired a well-regarded producer after the release of the long-awaited investigation into the September 8 60 Minutes II story that used allegedly forged documents to back up assertions about lapses in President Bush’s National Guard service.
The investigation, conducted by former U.S. attorney general Dick Thornburgh and onetime Associated Press chief Louis D. Boccardi, was so sensitive that senior producers at CBS News were apparently not given any advance look at it. (For an interesting take on the Memogate furor, check out this CJR piece.)
Dan Rather takes some hits in the report but, since he has apologized and is retiring in March anyway, no further disciplinary action was taken. CBS News president Andrew Heyward comes off looking fairly good.
In a statement, CBS television CEO Leslie Moonves said, “The bottom line is that much of the September 8th broadcast was wrong, incomplete or unfair.”
The segment’s producer, Mary Mapes, “ignored information that cast doubt on the story she had set out to report . . . As the panel found, statements made by sources were ignored, as were notes in Mapes’s own files,” Moonves said.
In addition, Moonves said, “management did little to seek affidavits from the handwriting experts.” And then after the report aired and questions surfaced, “CBS News continued to support the segment and the documents for 12 days, despite rising criticism that the documents were not authentic. Instead of asserting its role of independent oversight, CBS News management circled the wagons and encouraged a campaign of support for the report, going so far as to allow the very personnel who were being challenged in the matter to produce follow-up reports in support of the segment.”
Mapes, “one of the most highly regarded professionals in the business,” who had “broken the story on the Abu Ghraib prison abuses,” has been fired, said Moonves.
Three people were asked to resign:
- The show’s executive producer, Josh Howard, who “participated in rushing this key investigative report onto the air without questioning (Mapes) thoroughly about sources and documentation, and did little to assert his role as the producer ultimately responsible for the broadcast and everything in it,” according to Moonves.
- Senior Vice President of Prime Time Betsy West, who, according to Moonves, oversaw the flawed vetting process and “continued to defend the segment even when it was becoming increasingly apparent that it was flawed, and even when Howard suggested that the time had come to back away from the authenticity of the documents.”
- Howard’s deputy, Mary Murphy, who was supposed to vet Mapes’s sources but didn’t.
Another producer, Esther Kartiganer, who was supposed to make sure that interview segments were used in context, was reassigned. An associate producer, Yvonne Miller, was criticized but keeps her job.
As for Rather, Moonves said he, “asked the right questions initially, but then made the same errors of credulity and over-enthusiasm that beset many of his colleagues in regard to this segment.”
“He was convinced that the documents were authenticated because he was told in no uncertain terms that this was so. He defended the story over-zealously afterwards; again, he believed in a star associate with whom he had worked often, and to award-winning result,” Moonves said, and adds that “the broadcast would have benefited from a more direct involvement on Rather’s part.”
For his part, Heyward “explicitly warned West and Howard that ‘we will have to defend every syllable’ of the segment and . . . specifically urged them not to allow the production team to ” ‘stampede us.’ ” But, Mooves said, “Heyward’s directives were not implemented in a prompt or systematic way.”
However, “Heyward is an executive of integrity and talent, and the right person to be leading CBS News during this challenging time,” Moonves said.
Moonves also announced several changes in news practices.