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The Elephant In My Room

For some, whether or not Public Eye speaks out on Memogate has become a litmus test of our seriousness, guts and honesty. I think that's sort of silly. Our mission at Public Eye is to facilitate discussion, answer questions and open up the process at CBS News, not to offer my opinions in a straight "ombudsman" fashion.

Still, the question comes up over and over and lurks just beneath the surface of almost everything we do. The reality is that this week's change of leadership at CBS News brings the issue to the forefront once again. A new account of the episode, written by former producer Mary Mapes, is also due to hit bookstores shortly. So I'll try to address it here, offer some of my personal thoughts and, hopefully, help to answer some of the questions.

Long before PE debuted, the questions I was most often asked were: Would Memogate have happened if Public Eye had been around then? And, what difference would Public Eye have made?

Would the story have gone on the air? Probably, but it's impossible to be certain. What I can say is it's very unlikely I or anyone else at PE would have known about the story prior to the time the public in general was alerted to it. Even in the event we would have had any knowledge that "60 Minutes Wednesday" was preparing a story on President Bush's National Guard service, we certainly would not have been involved in the preparation or vetting of it. Whether the mere presence of PE would have caused those in charge to be more cautious can't be known but I doubt it.

What difference would PE have made? Well, from the day after the show on, we would have written about it. We would have noted the criticisms made on various blogs starting immediately after the show and would have asked CBS executives in charge about them. I like to think our involvement in that process would have altered the way in which CBS responded, that fuller answers would have been forthcoming in a timelier manner. The truth is, I don't know.

Another question that continues to be asked is: Are the documents fake?

Nothing I've seen leads me to believe they are authentic. The Thornburgh-Boccardi report (pdf) makes painfully clear that the documents used in the "60 Minutes Wednesday" report were neither authenticated nor believable in many ways. They certainly did not come remotely close to meeting standards for air. The report, written by lawyers in a style only lawyers can love, found that the panel could not prove the documents to be forgeries. But, to this day, no one has discovered where they came from or who may have written them. In any case, it was CBS' responsibility to prove they were authentic, not for anyone else to prove they were fake.

Points made in the report — from the failure to trace the documents to the conflicting statements given by Bill Burkett as to how he came into possession of them to questions raised by experts about them prior to air — lead me to conclude they are not authentic. And from various discussions, I haven't found anyone else at CBS who believes otherwise.

Some continue to claim that even if the documents are fake, the gist of the story is true somehow. Wrong. The documents were presented as evidence to prove the story's accuracy. The fact that they have been discredited undermines the veracity of the entire story, and it's not an acceptable defense of it.

A tougher question is whether CBS accounted for itself properly. Let me answer that in five parts.

1. Was CBS' initial response forthcoming and admirable? No, it wasn't. The urge to hunker down and circle the wagons led to decisions almost as damaging as those that led to the airing of the story. The search for evidence and experts that would bolster the story, instead of a search for the truth, was a lesson in how not to practice journalism. And allowing the producer of the original story to then produce "Evening News" stories to defend it was, at best, curious.

2. But, all that did lead to the appointment of the independent Thornburgh-Boccardi panel to investigate the story behind the story. Anyone who has read its findings can see it was exhaustive and thorough. On some contentious issues, the panel shied away from drawing conclusions, but the report is strongly judgmental on some of the most important aspects of the story. CBS cooperated with the panel completely and the report issued is solid and expansive.

3. As for moral atonement, well, CBS News and many individuals within paid a heavy price and who am I to sit in judgment of that?

The network's reputation has taken a hit. Four people with long, distinguished careers no longer have their jobs. Earlier this week the president of the news division announced his departure. Andrew Heyward told me the episode had nothing to do with his leaving. Still, I think many will consider him a casualty, fair or not. Dan Rather no longer anchors the network. The show, "60 Minutes Wednesday" is no longer on the air — something that may or may not be directly attributable to Memogate, but something that cost more jobs nevertheless.

4. While Public Eye was born from a separate process, the fact that CBS News management was open to this project speaks with actions, not words, about a commitment to a new philosophy and a new openness. Would they have felt the need to take what they may perceive as a risk without having gone through Memogate? Who knows, but it helped provide a more fertile climate.

5. What do I think of the report? As I said, it is broad, thorough and pretty clear, even while being lawyerly in its caution. I think anyone who takes the time to read the entire thing> comes away with a very troubled feeling and a clear understanding of why the story should not have been aired in the condition it was.

I feel that the report was softer on Dan Rather than he was on himself. Yes, he was very busy, covering a political convention and a hurricane. Yes, he was working with Mapes, someone who, by all accounts, he trusted completely. But those factors are no substitute for the responsibility he had for a report that was aired under his name. Rather has never shied from taking that responsibility. The report should have held him responsible for all the byline entails.

My biggest quibble with the report concerns its finding that they could not find a political bias behind the story. As in the case of the documents, the lawyers found that a lack of absolute proof left them unable to make that charge. But there are several things that make a pretty convincing circumstantial case of some type of bias to me.

1. The story itself has dubious value. The panel found that competitive pressure was the main force behind rushing the story to air since other news organizations were actively pursuing the same story. But that fact does not make the story worthwhile. Perhaps I was too close to politics, having covered President Bush since he first ran for governor of Texas. But as an analyst, I failed to see tremendous importance in the story. If, in running for a second term, a story happened to turn up of an extra-marital affair, President Clinton engaged in 20 years before, I would have felt the same way — as, I suspect, would most of the public.

I don't think there are many people who would be surprised if someone told them President Bush had gotten into the Texas Air National Guard with a little help from his family's high-placed friends. I don't think it's a secret that many young men at that time benefited from similar connections. More newsworthy perhaps, as detailed in the report, was the revelation that some interviewed by Mapes said Mr. Bush had volunteered to go to Vietnam but was turned down.

Any big break in the story that proved that Mr. Bush had not honorably completed his service or had manipulated the levers of power would have been big news. Even had the "60 Minutes Wednesday" story been airtight, it contained nothing that moved the story to that level. Given some of President Bush's statements regarding his service, was this story of some worth? Yes. Was it worth cutting corners and "crashing" it to air? No.

2. Mapes' zeal in chasing this story is striking. It is not out of the ordinary for producers and reporters to work on a story for years before getting the break they need to nail it. But this instance carries an air of obsession. What struck me in reading the report was Mapes' use of the words "holy grail." When she learned of the possible existence of new documents, she "and her team speculated that the document was the 'holy grail' for which they had been searching" (pg. 70 of the Thornburgh-Boccardi report). Later, when Mapes interviewed Maj. Gen. Hodges, a colleague described her as believing he was the "holy grail" (pg. 114 of the report).

Perhaps I'm making too much of it, but those words suggest a quest beyond professionalism to me. And it seems, in the midst of a quest, it's tempting to look for the things that help you in it and shun those that don't. And that, according to the panel's findings, is part of what Mapes did.

3. Mapes' contact with the John Kerry campaign is troubling by itself but more so when the contradictions are added. Mapes says she contacted Kerry spokesman Joe Lockhart to ask him to contact Bill Burkett as a condition of obtaining the documents. According to the panel, Mapes claims the subject of the documents was not discussed, nor was the story she was working on. Lockhart remembers it differently, saying Mapes told him about the story and the documents, going so far as to describe himself as feeling uncomfortable about the conversation.

The report does not find that political bias was a factor in rushing this flawed story to air in the heat of a hotly contested presidential campaign. I find it hard to believe some kind of bias, political or otherwise, did not play a role. I urge everyone to read the report before coming to their own conclusions. You can read the full report here and the supporting documentation here.

Overall, it seems to me (and the panel) that the story was put on the air because there was a highly respected and trusted star producer driving it and those above her in charge fell down in their duty to fully question and vet her work. The problem was compounded by many factors in the days immediately following it. And the consequences have been harsher than most critics recognize.

There has been plenty of finger-pointing over the past year and there will be more in the coming weeks. For Public Eye's purposes, I came to this feeling the whole affair was largely in the past. I still feel that way. My hope is that, in some complicated way, writing this now — before events potentially stir up an old hornet's nest — will help Public Eye move forward cleanly with our true mission.