Unanswered Questions of Rathergate

CBS promised to get to the bottom of a discredited “60 Minutes Wednesday” segment, and indeed the network did in the most harshly critical look at a news gathering operation since The New York Times’ lacerating post-mortem of the Jayson Blair scandal.

The probe concerned a story about George W. Bush’s National Guard service based on four copies of memos that CBS couldn’t authenticate – and barely tried – originating with a partisan and suspect source.

A 224-page report by former Associated Press chief Lou Boccardi and former Attorney General Richard Thornburgh found “considerable and fundamental deficiencies” in the reporting and presentation of the segment.

They blamed a “myopic zeal” to be first with a blockbuster, a danger endemic to competitive news organizations. And, reading between the lines, it would have taken a bold CBS staffer to try to red flag a story reported by the network’s hot shot producer, Mary Mapes, and overseen by its biggest star, anchor Dan Rather.

Mapes and three other CBS employees were dismissed. The bloodletting stopped at the level of CBS News senior vice president. Rather and the president of CBS News survived, although the controversy prompted Rather’s earlier-than-expected retirement. (In The New York Times case, the editor in chief and managing editor lost their jobs.)

Rather’s escape hardly does him credit. The report notes that he was overworked and distracted by other stories, but the CBS News Web site describes him as “immersed” in the details of his news show. The defense, in sum, is that he pretty much read what was put in front of him.

Maybe the lesson here is that TV news shows should dispense with the practice of having underlings report and write the stories with the “talent” flying in to do the on-camera narration. Let the people who do the actual work get some camera time. The notion that it’s not news unless a famous face is in front is silly in any case.

The panel said – to the incredulity of conservative bloggers who made a cottage industry of looking – that it could find no evidence of political bias but that there was “the appearance of political bias.”

Maybe more than appearance. Mapes gave a top Kerry campaign official a heads-up on the story and offered to put him in touch with the source. And the story questioning Bush’s Guard service aired on Sept. 8, at the outset of a tossup presidential campaign. Moreover, the thrust of the story – that Bush received preferential treatment in joining and exiting the Guard – was not new.

After all this, a good story is still out there somewhere. The documents have never conclusively been proven to be fake, but if they are phony, who forged them and how? CBS can be excused if it chooses to leave pursuit of that scoop to other news organizations.

(Contact Dale McFeatters at McFeattersD(at)SHNS.com)