Investigating the investigators.

Investigating the investigators.

Investigating the investigators.

Media criticism.
Jan. 11 2005 7:37 PM

Investigating the Investigators

What the authors of the report on CBS News don't understand about journalism.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty

The independent review that CBS commissioned of 60 Minutes Wednesday's story on President Bush's service record chugs along for 224 pages, not counting appendices, reading like a legal brief. Which it sort of is. Headed by former Attorney General Dick Thornburgh and retired Associated Press President and CEO Louis D. Boccardi, the review panel surely had its heaviest lifting done by seven attorneys at the Washington division of Kirkpatrick & Lockhart, Nicholson, Graham, whose names appear on the last page of the review.

Their verdict is irrefutable: The 60 Minutes Wednesday team and the supervising CBS News executives committed repeated journalistic malpractice in their reporting, editing, and production of the Bush segment. So to the gallows CBS President Leslie Moonves sent the four CBS News staffers it considered responsible—a senior vice president, the executive producer of 60 Minutes Wednesday, his deputy, and segment producer Mary Mapes. After which, Moonves tied their bodies to the bumper of a CBS staff car and drove it through the streets of New York.

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"We're getting rid of the people we think were to blame," Moonves told the Washington Post's Howard Kurtz. Moonves' flippant remark implies that CBS News President Andrew Heyward, who OK'd the segment before it ran, and anchorman Dan Rather, who narrated it and blindly defended it in the face of valid criticism, were blameless in the affair.

CBS's remedy fit the usual blue-ribbon-panel-submits-its-definitive-report-and-the-news-organization-fires-the-errant-employees template, says Mark Feldstein, a former broadcast investigative reporter who now teaches at George Washington University's journalism school.

"The blame tends, like gravity, to trickle down, except for the need not to be too obvious about it," Feldstein writes via e-mail. "Hindsight makes the errors painfully glaring" and "the bosses that usually try to grab credit for the work of their underlings suddenly have amnesia about their own involvement in the process."

Feldstein points out that the two in-house lawyers who vetted the Bush service-record story received no direct reprimand in the panel's review and no discipline from superiors. Maybe the lawyers are irreproachable, or maybe the eight lawyers on the panel (Thornburgh plus the Kirkpatrick & Lockhart crew) protect their own, but the absence of Heyward, Rather, and the lawyers from the report's shit list only buttresses Feldstein's thesis.

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Although the review pretends that the Bush service story was an anomaly, a temporary unhinging of CBS News' high journalistic standards, anybody who has worked with investigative reporters will recognize the fact-shaving, source-buttering, and ethics-skirting practiced by Mapes and her colleagues. Investigative reporters are a different breed of human being, possessed of the absolute conviction that their wild hunches are provable. They're well-practiced at selectively quoting people and documents, overstating their case, and shamelessly revising their previous statements at a moment's notice if they believe it will serve their project. And that's no slam. Investigative reporters don't construct their stories from press handouts; they burrow into deep, dark, and dangerous terrain to uncover truths. If they weren't as resourceful at compromising reality, we'd have no investigative reporting at all.

For that reason, I found myself quarrelling with the reviewers—as opposed to their findings—as I paged through it. I rarely got the sense that the eight lawyers and one retired news executive (who spent three months and anywhere between $500,000 and $1 million on their review, based on my back-of-the-envelope estimates) understand how investigative reporters do what they do.

Evidence of the reviewers' cluelessness comes when the panel assesses the CBS journalists for political bias and discovers none. I don't know that I've met more than four or five investigative journalists in my life who didn't wear their political biases on their flapping tongues. Almost to a one, they're suspicious (paranoid?) about corporate power, dubious about the intentions of governments, and convinced that at this very moment a secret meeting is being held somewhere in which a hateful conspiracy against the masses is being hatched. I won't provoke the investigative-journalist union by alleging that most of its members are Democrats or lefties, but aside from a few right-wing reporters sucking conservative teats inside the government, how many Republican investigative aces can you name?

Far from being a handicap, political bias appears to be a necessity for the investigative reporter. On one level, you've got to admire Mapes for rejecting all the mounds of evidence assembled by hundreds of other reporters who tried and failed to conclusively prove that Bush got a special service deal. For all Mapes' faults—and the panel documents her failings by the bushel—the panel still found that her colleagues "highly" regarded her. (One worries about the "lowly" regarded producers at CBS News.)

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The zealotry of the investigative reporter is more efficient than a Prius, more powerful than a plate tectonic shift, and as obnoxious as a 2-year-old. But investigative journalists, like 2-year-olds, require adult supervision, and the debacle that was the 60 Minutes Wednesday report indicates that the adults went on mental holiday that week.

The panel didn't recommend the firing of any CBS News employees. That was Moonves' call. That he commuted the sentences of Heyward and Rather, the most senior employees at CBS News who share complicity, and hanged the rest is probably what prompted Mapes to accuse him of "vitriolic scapegoating." This is slightly unfair to Moonves: Mapes isn't innocent, so Moonves can't scapegoat her. She recklessly pursued the Bush story, and based on her comments before the independent review panel, she hasn't changed her tune.

Still, many questions demand to be answered about this journalistic fiasco. Who moved the Bush service segment from its scheduled Sept. 29 slot to Sept. 8, forcing Mapes and company to "crash" the segment for broadcast? The report skims over this issue with passive language, asserting that "it was decided to move up the date" and the "decision was driven in significant part by competitive pressures. …" Did CBS News fear that it would be beaten on the story, as it almost was on the Abu Ghraib story, which Mapes also produced? Also, the panel never resolves the fundamental question of whether the service documents were forgeries or not—a bit of a cheat if they charged three months of billable hours for their services.

The 60 Minutes Wednesday scandal parallels CNN's 1998 Operation Tailwind debacle almost step for step. In both cases, a dedicated and experienced reporter waved off facts that disturbed her investigative premise. In both cases, the broadcasts stirred immediate controversy from viewers and critics who detected defects in reasoning and evidence. In both cases, outside attorneys were drafted to investigate the investigation. (At CNN, First Amendment crusader Floyd Abrams filed this disparaging report to the network.) In both cases, the heads closest to the disputed program were harvested while most of the executive class escaped punishment.

Mapes was taken in by a hoax, it seems, and the auteur of CNN's Operation Tailwind program was convinced by unreliable sources. No conflicting evidence, no matter how strong, was enough to shake the faith of either reporter. Tragically, neither seems to have learned in their careers that doubt, not certainty, is often an investigative reporter's best friend.

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Thanks to reader Roger Feinman for suggesting that I note the panel's failure to resolve who moved the segment's air date. Send e-mail to pressbox@hotmail.com. (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)