Competitive zeal no excuse for bad reporting

CNJ staff

CBS News fired three executives and one other employee Monday, after releasing the results of an independent investigation of the network’s airing of a debunked story critical of President George W. Bush’s National Guard service. It wasn’t just the story that proved fateful for the network, but its poor handling of criticisms that arose after the fact.

As CBS admitted in its own news coverage of the event, “After a stubborn 12-day defense of the story, CBS News conceded that it could not confirm the authenticity of the documents.”

Aired Sept. 8 in the final weeks of a tight presidential race, the “60 Minutes Wednesday” report, by Dan Rather, unveiled four documents that purported to show that Bush may have gotten preferential treatment during his guard service in the 1970s. One claimed the guard was under pressure to “sugarcoat” Bush’s service, and another claimed that Bush failed to show up for a medical exam, despite the orders of his commanding officer.

The source of the documents was retired Texas National Guard Lt. Col. Bill Burkett, a Portales native.

Immediately, the documents hit the fan — or at least in this case, they hit the world of Internet bloggers. Critics claimed the documents were obvious forgeries and could be replicated virtually identically by plugging the information into modern word-processing software.

The panel, which included former Attorney General Richard Thornburgh and former Associated Press President Louis Boccardi, slammed the network for relying on documents from “a sometimes controversial source with a partisan point of view. … Only the most cursory effort — one unsuccessful attempt to contact the original source by telephone — was made to establish the chain of custody.”

The panel blamed “competitive zeal” rather than partisanship for the grievous errors that plagued the story and its aftermath. Yet it’s hard not to conclude that partisanship played a role at some level. Would the network or Rather, who doesn’t hide his liberal political views, have run with a story so late in the campaign about, say, candidate John Kerry’s controversial Vietnam service?

Particularly strange is the way the network defended the story and documents even after credible questions were raised. CBS thought it could simply brush off critics as uninformed Internet partisans, yet, ultimately, the bloggers had more credibility on this issue than one of the nation’s top TV networks.

CBS now admits that even after CBS News President Andrew Heyward ordered Senior Vice President Betsy West to review the opinions of document examiners, no such investigation was taken. West was one of those fired on Monday, although Rather was not.

In the days following the airing of the story, we were surprised by the arrogance of a network operating in much the same way as any number of corporate executives had acted on the air after being targeted by “60 Minutes” for some form of wrongdoing. The network certainly should have known what not to do when questions of propriety arise.

The network could have gone further, perhaps by dealing with issues of political bias, but at least it fired responsible executives and announced policies to protect against similar problems in the future.

Long gone are the days when most Americans get their news from three sources. Now — for better or worse, but mostly for the better — Americans can turn to traditional networks and newspapers, as well as to cable networks, talk radio and the Internet, for news. As usual, competition is the best answer for most problems.