Pricking Thornburgh.

Pricking Thornburgh.

Pricking Thornburgh.

Media criticism.
Sept. 24 2004 7:48 PM

Pricking Thornburgh

A part of the Thornburgh-CBS News feud the New York Times missed.

Mike Wallace's Thornburgh problem
Mike Wallace's Thornburgh problem

Today's New York Times introduces the notion that former Attorney General Dick Thornburgh's personal history with CBS News might prejudice him against the organization in his new role as one of its internal investigators. Two days ago, CBS News President Andrew Heyward hired Thornburgh and Louis Boccardi, retired Associated Press CEO, to conduct a post-mortem of 60 Minutes Wednesday' s flawed report about President George W. Bush's National Guard service ("Investigator for CBS Criticized '60 Minutes,' "New York Times, Sept. 24).

The short—400 words—Times story doesn't pretend to do much beyond quoting Thornburgh's complaints against 60 Minutes from his 2003 autobiography, Where the Evidence Leads, and soliciting responses from folks at CBS News and Thornburgh. (He's not talking.) In his book, Thornburgh writes that in 1992, 60 Minutes "chimed in with its usual sensationalized treatment'' of a Justice Department investigation in the scandal that came to be known as "Iraqgate." The story also quotes a passage from the book in which Thornburgh states that he declined a later request for a 60 Minutes interview"because of my previous shabby treatment on it, turning down even a personal plea from Mike Wallace himself."

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This too-brief account of Thornburgh and CBS News' back story is unfortunate because the piece would have been vastly improved had it added this context: 60 Minutes and Mike Wallace dicked Dick Thornburgh in its coverage of Iraqgate. He has every right to be peeved.

How shabbily did the newsmagazine treat Thornburgh? On Page 216 of Where the Evidence Leads, he asserts that the 60 Minutes segment "plowed no new ground but did elicit an observation from Mike Wallace that both [William] Barr and I might belong behind bars."

The autobiography then quotes from the Nov. 1, 1992, episode in which Wallace interviews Rep. Henry Gonzalez, D-Texas, about an Italian bank investigation. That investigation was part of Iraqgate. From the 60 Minutes transcript:

Wallace: What I hear you saying, Mr. Chairman, is that Dick Thornburgh, when he was attorney general, and William Barr, now that he is attorney general, have been involved in obstruction of justice.

Cong. Gonzalez: Yes, sir.

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Thornburgh and Barr declined to be interviewed for the 1992 segment, according to the 60 Minutes transcript. The journalist in me says they should have talked on the program. But the germane issue for me is: Did 60 Minutes abuse Thornburgh?

Stuart Taylor Jr., the most meticulous and honest legal affairs reporter of my generation, examined the press coverage of Iraqgate in his 10,500-word, November 1994 American Lawyer feature, "Mediagate: Anatomy of a Feeding Frenzy." He excoriates the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, the New York Times, and U.S. News & World Report, calling their work "yellow journalism."

Of a certain CBS newsmagazine, Taylor writes, "Mike Wallace of CBS News's 60 Minutes … aired, with no hint of skepticism, outlandish charges by sources of low credibility. …" Taylor continues:

It was a big lie to say that Bush secretly and illegally armed Iraq. It was preposterous to say that Bush was "principally responsible" for creating Saddam Hussein's war machine, as Gonzalez said two days before the 1992 election on 60 Minutes, with Mike Wallace prompting him. And it was the biggest lie of all to say that attorneys general Dick Thornburgh and William Barr rigged a coverup by obstructing justice, as Gonzalez (also on 60 Minutes) and [William Safire] asserted without qualification, and as others, including Judge Shoob, The New York Times, and The Washington Post hinted more circumspectly.

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Today's Times story reports that Thornburgh alerted CBS News President Andrew Heyward to the relevant passages in his book before taking the assignment. If Thornburgh's well-justified, 12-year-old 60 Minutes grudge didn't bother Heyward, it shouldn't bother anybody else.

Mike Wallace, however, opposes Thornburgh's appointment. In the Times story, he says Thornburgh is the wrong man for the job, but not because of the 60 Minutes spat. It's because Thornburgh is ignorant about TV journalism.

"It occurs to me that on the team of investigators should be someone who has experience with how a television piece is put together," Mr. Wallace said. "He has none, as far as I know."

Sure, Mike, sure. Dick Thornburgh needs to take a couple of courses in TV production before he can judge 60 Minutes Wednesday.

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Who else is bothered by Thornburgh? Colleagues of 60 Minutes Wednesday correspondent Dan Rather say he was miffed because Thornburgh worked for George W. Bush's father and for Rather nemesis Richard Nixon, the Times reports, but that he's gotten over it.

Now, I don't know if Thornburgh is the perfect guy for the CBS News investigation, but at some point any high-profile candidate for such an internal assessment is going to have a one- or two-degrees of separation relationship with one of the principals.

Case in point: If Thornburgh's personal history automatically prejudices him against CBS News, it's worth mentioning that his personal history might also prejudice him against the Bush camp. A Cox News Service report from yesterday (Sept. 23) by Ken Herman explains that Bush adviser Karl Rove successfully sued Thornburgh for $170,000 he owed Rove's firm for campaign services rendered during Thornburgh's losing 1991 Senate campaign.

I await the Times coverage of that.

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"Investigating CBS News" sounds like a show I'd watch. Send your TV show titles via e-mail to pressbox@hotmail.com. (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)