By David Bauder
NEW YORK — Four CBS News staffers were fired Monday following the release of an independent investigation involving a Portales native’s release of documents to the broadcast news organization this fall.
The investigation said a “myopic zeal” led to the airing of a discredited story about President Bush’s military service, and that CBS officials’ public apology placed too much blame on retired Texas National Guard Lt. Col. Bill Burkett, the source of the documents and a Portales native who now lives in West Texas.
The panel’s 224-page report detailed dozens of missteps, including the reliance on documents that were allegedly forged.
CBS fired Mary Mapes, producer of the report aired Sept. 8 on “60 Minutes Wednesday;” Josh Howard, executive producer of the show; his top deputy Mary Murphy; and senior vice president Betsy West.
Dan Rather, who narrated the report, was faulted for “errors of credulity and overenthusiasm,” but was not disciplined by top CBS executive Leslie Moonves. Rather announced in November that he was stepping down as anchorman of the “CBS Evening News,” but insisted the timing had nothing to do with the investigation.
CBS News President Andrew Heyward kept his job. The panel said Heyward had explicitly urged caution before the report aired.
Moonves had appointed former Republican Attorney General Dick Thornburgh and Louis D. Boccardi, retired president of The Associated Press, to investigate what went wrong. They delivered their report last week.
“These problems were caused primarily by a myopic zeal to be the first news organization to broadcast what was believed to be a new story about President Bush’s Texas Air National Guard service, and the rigid and blind defense of the segment after it aired despite numerous indications of its shortcomings,” the panelists concluded.
Boccardi and Thornburgh said they found no evidence to conclude the report was politically motivated.
The report cited documents purported to be from one of Bush’s commanders in the Texas Air National Guard. The documents say the commander, the late Lt. Col. Jerry Killian, ordered Bush to take a medical exam and the future president did not. Killian also reportedly felt pressured to sugarcoat an evaluation of then 1st Lt. Bush.
Questions were quickly raised about the memo. Some document experts said a font used in the document appeared to have been created on a computer and not on any typewriter that was available at the time.
Although the panel said it couldn’t prove conclusively the documents were forged, it said CBS News failed to authenticate them and falsely claimed an expert had done so when all he had done was authenticate one signature.
The panel said Mapes had misled her superiors about the documents and the background of her source Burkett, a former student-body president at Eastern New Mexico University.
CBS News executives relied too heavily on Mapes, who only months earlier had broken the story about the Abu Ghraib prison.. Howard, who had begun supervising “60 Minutes Wednesday” in June, gave too much deference to her and Rather, the panel said.
Two days after the report, Heyward ordered West to review the opinions of document examiners and confidential sources who had supported the story — but no such investigation was done, Thornburgh and Boccardi said.
“Had this directive been followed promptly, the panel does not believe that ‘60 Minutes Wednesday’ would have publicly defended the segment for another 10 days,” Boccardi and Thornburgh wrote.
The panel faulted Rather, and said it did not appear he had even seen the report until its broadcast. And it said CBS’ apology, issued nearly two weeks after the report aired, unfairly pinned too much blame on Burkett and not enough on its own failures.
Following the independent investigation, CBS News appointed one of its executives, Linda Mason, to a newly created job of senior vice president of standards and special projects. It will be her job to thoroughly review everything about an investigative scandal before it airs.
CNJ News Editor Mike Linn contributed to this story.