Dan Rather and CBS News President Andrew Heyward came to their senses today and ended 10 days of stonewalling over the Sept. 8 60 Minutes Wednesday broadcast that cited military documents—now believed by even CBS to be frauds—that the network said raised new questions about President George W. Bush's National Guard service.
Both the anchor and the network president issued apologies for relying on the documents, although neither offered an explanation for why it took them so long to climb down. Why did Rather belittle some of the story's doubters ("partisan political operatives," he said) who raised valid questions about the documents' authenticity and provenance instead of answering them?
The blogosphere declared the documents a hoax within hours of the broadcast, as the Washington Post's Howard Kurtz reports. Just a day and a half after the program aired, the Post, the New York Times, and the Los Angeles Times were hot on the case, doing the relentless gumshoe reporting that CBS News should have done in the first place. (A fine piece of reporting from the Sept. 19 Post lays out in ticktock form how 60 Minutes Wednesday allowed itself to be taken in by the sloppy frauds.)
The broadest explanation for CBS News' reluctance to correct the record applies, unfortunately, to all journalists, especially investigative journalists: Once journalists commit themselves to a version of events or to a point of view, they are all too often unwilling to change their minds. Remember, Rather producer Mary Mapes had been working on the Bush military beat for five years: Nobody was going to tell her she had the basic story wrong. Sometimes investigative reporters fall down the rabbit hole and wave off any evidence that disturbs the thrust of their story. By all accounts, CBS News did just this by ignoring the warnings of document examiners who wouldn't vouch for the memos.
Investigative reporters also expect their scoops to be attacked, especially if the story's subject is powerful or shady, so they're emboldened rather than discouraged by the first round of criticism. We must be getting close to the marrow if they're screaming this loud! they think. If the criticism comes from the competition, they're particularly nasty, as Dan Rather was, when he fended off questions about the documents' authenticity by saying that the rest of the media should go after Bush's military record instead of ripping CBS News.
The bigger the institution, it seems, the stronger is the incentive to dig in and ride out a journalistic miscue. Take, for example, the New York Times'belated responses to the criticisms of its coverage of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. The paper only took action on its unsound coverage after months of detailed and irrefutable criticisms from the outside. It's to the Times' credit that it revisited the subject, but why wait so long?
Sources inside the Times tell me that the paper's leadership worried that excavating and analyzing the WMD stories would damage the institution. Would Wall Street dump the stock? Would advertisers abandon its pages? The institution also didn't want to be accused of pinning the blame on the editor who had supervised most of that reporting, Howell Raines, and then been asked to leave following the Jayson Blair blow-up by Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr.
Rather appears to have been guided by the belief that he was doing his institution a great favor by holding out instead of retracting the story. Why any institution should believe that shirking the truth in the short run is a path to strength in the long run is beyond me. Rather shares another quirk with Raines in believing that he personifies his beloved institution and that an attack on his work is an attack on his institution. When Rather was still defending the story, he pompously placed himself in the imagined CBS News pantheon of Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite, saying, "I think over the long haul, this will be consistent with our history and our traditions and reputation. … We took heat during the McCarthy time, during Vietnam, during civil rights, during Watergate. We haven't always been right, but our record is damn good."
If correcting the record is tantamount to defiling CBS News for Rather, imagine how painful surrendering to critics, which include George W. Bush supporters, must be for him.
Some big journalistic institutions recoil from self-criticism out of a belief that it will injure employee morale. At the Times, the brass sought to avoid a public autopsy of its defective WMD work because it didn't want to 1) alienate every reporter and editor who had touched the imperfect copy and 2) because it didn't want the fault-finding to discourage its staff from aggressively reporting the next big story. But morale is a wind that blows both ways. Morale started to suffer at the Times over its WMD reporting after the paper failed to answer its critics and correct the record.
It took months for the winds of morale to switch directions at the Times, but just days for it to form at CBS News: On Sept. 16, CBS News chief Washington correspondent Bob Schieffer counseled Rather somewhat dramatically in the pages of the Washington Post, telling him that he needed to "find a way to show people these documents are not forgeries." If only Raymond Bonner had given Judith Miller similar advice in early 2003.
The Bush document hoax has become such a big story because TV journalists usually act as though they're infallible. When was the last time you heard Rather or any other network anchor issue a correction or a retraction? It's as rare as rain on the moon. Compare CBS's imperious behavior to that of the Times, which issued 2,867 corrections in 2002. With no systematic way to address errors, the network has no built-in safety valve that allows it to correct the record. It has only two choices: Stand by its story completely, or fold completely.
CBS News would have benefited this month if it could have availed itself of some alternative way to quasi-independently reinvestigate the story. For instance, it could have used a "B team" of reporters who hadn't worked on the document story to go back and re-report it. The Washington Post dug itself out of the Janet Cooke mess back in 1981 by giving its ombudsman, Bill Green, authority to conduct an investigation and publish the results in the newspaper. David Shaw helped restore the Los Angeles Times' credibility in 2000 after the Staples Center scandal with his no-holds-barred investigation. The Times redeemed itself last year by commissioning an internal take-out on Jayson Blair's journalistic fraud, and Public Editor Daniel Okrent does a good job of keeping the paper honest with his uncompromising column.
Many are calling for Dan Rather's resignation today, but not me. Obviously, CBS News needs to rethink its approach to journalism if it hopes to restore viewer faith. A weekly corrections segment on the CBS Evening News and on its various newsmagazines would be a good place to start. A CBS News public editor with the talent, leeway, and independence of Okrent would be another. (Okrent's next gig, perhaps?) A lot less Rather hubris would be nice, as well.
Memo to Heyward: Rather, who turns 73 on Oct. 31, is perfectly placed to make CBS News a more accountable and more accurate news source. Give him a swan-song year to help fix what's broken and a gold watch on Halloween 2005.
Halloween is my birthday, too, Dan! Send e-mail and birthday news to firstname.lastname@example.org. (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)