At the 1980 Republican convention in Detroit I came within a few telephone digits of reporting that Ronald Reagan had offered the vice presidential candidacy to Gerald Ford before deciding my information was too soft. Seven years later, misled by a "reliable" source, I reported that a special white house panel would soon accuse presidential chief-of-staff Donald Regan of leading the Iran-Contra cover-up. I retracted that erroneous "scoop" later the same evening.
So my initial sentiment when a major news organization like CBS botches a big one is both sympathy and empathy. I know what it's like to have the smell of the hunt in your nostrils, the building euphoria as pieces of a big story fall into place, the adrenalin rush as you watch your enterprise make air and know that millions of others are watching too.
But I felt a sense of professional betrayal as Dan Rather and colleagues defended their 60-Minutes report providing documentary "proof" that George W. Bush had shirked his duties as a Texas air national guardsman and that his superior, Lt. Colonel Jerry B. Killian—now long deceased—had been pressed to "sugar-coat" the affair.
After an odd couple assortment of bloggers and traditional news organizations raised doubts about what CBS claimed were Killian's notes, the network's position began to unravel. Their source, Bill Burkett, turned out to be a disgruntled former Texas guardsman who had long been on an anti-Bush vendetta. As a quid pro quo for delivering the material, he had demanded access to a top Kerry campaign official, a request senior 60-Minutes producer Mary Mapes obliged, contacting Joe Lockhart days before the piece aired. Burkett would later say he lied about his own source for the documents, something even a desk assistant could have discovered had the CBS team insisted on establishing a chain of custody. Instead, CBS rushed to air despite caveats from its own document experts that serious authenticity questions were unanswered.
Unconscionably, Rather vouched for the documents' authenticity and attacked critics as "partisan." Even after acknowledging he could no longer defend the papers, he offered no retraction of the story, instead claiming that the "heart" of the report attacking the president was unchallenged.
Unchallenged indeed! Without the documents there was no heart of the report, only thirty year-old hearsay. Without them the report would never have made 60-Minutes, or the Evening News, or for that matter, the Podunk Press. What was on display at CBS appears to have been a "get George Bush" mentality—colleagues said Ms. Mapes had been working the story for five years—compounded by the abdication of editorial responsibility by those who turn meek in the presence of Mr. Rather.
CBS has now retained a committee of two—former attorney general Dick Thornburg and former Associate Press President Louis D. Boccardi—to explore what went wrong and why. Similar post-debacle inquires at the New York Times, USA Today and CNN have resulted in personnel changes up to the very top. CBS, a monument to the arrogance of fading network power, might look better with that sort of makeover.