All the News That’s Fit to Spin

It’s been little noted so far, but one of the most damning aspects of the Thornburgh/Boccardi Panel report about CBS’s September 8, 2004 segment on President Bush’s Texas Air National Guard service is its description of the way the network allowed its news division to morph into a PR machine in defense of itself.

Responding to the panel’s report, CBS chief executive officer Leslie Moonves put it this way:

For 12 days, despite a rising chorus of questions and criticism, “[i]nstead of asserting its role of independent oversight, CBS News management circled the wagons and encouraged a campaign of support for the report, going so far as to allow the very personnel who were being challenged in the matter to produce follow-up reports in support of the segment.”

Somehow, we can’t imagine, say, the New York Times putting Jayson Blair in charge of coverage of the Jayson Blair affair.

But beginning the day after the controversial broadcast aired, the network’s news coverage of the controversy that it had launched was handled by the same folks whose own original story had started the fuss. Thus, every CBS report turned into little more than an excuse to shill for the authenticity of its own story (and the credibility and, presumably, the ad revenue, of one of its own shows.)

On September 9, “CBS Evening News” featured, deadpan, a segment about political back-and-forth over President Bush’s guard record — with nary a mention of its own controversial story that had set off the discussion. As the Panel report dryly puts it, this was a “conspicuous omission.”

On September 10, the network’s evening broadcast featured a segment defending the September 8 report. It used clips from an interview with Marcel Matley, one of the experts the network had called in before the segment aired to verify the authenticity of the documents. Dan Rather led into the segment, “He says he believes [the documents] are real but he is concerned about what exactly is being examined by some of the people now questioning the documents because deterioration occurs each time a document is reproduced …” The clips featured Matley saying he thought the signatures on the documents were authentic, not that the documents themselves were real. As the panel’s report puts it, Rather’s characterization of the Matley’s statement as saying that the documents were “real” was “misleading and inconsistent with CBS News’ basic commitment to fair and accurate reporting.”

Rather also claimed that “Robert Strong was an administrative officer for the Texas Air National Guard during the Vietnam years … He is standing by his judgment that the documents are real.” But Strong’s testimony was nowhere near calling the documents “real” — Strong had hedged and said, “I don’t see anything in the documents that are discordant with what were the times, what were the situations, and what were the people that were involved.” Nor had CBS re-contacted Strong, so there was no basis for saying he was “standing by” his previous judgment.

Worse yet, the September 10 segment in effect defending Mapes and Rather was produced by Mapes and narrated by Rather, with input from two other “60 Minutes Wednesday” producers — leaving the fox in charge of the reportorial hen house.

On Saturday, September 11, the network again aired a brief report on its evening broadcast affirming that “The documents were authenticated for CBS News by outside experts” — which just wasn’t true.

On September 13, the network aired another Mapes-produced segment on the “Evening News,” which featured two experts in typography and word processing software saying that typographical criticisms of the documents could be mistaken. The Panel report notes that CBS did next to nothing to verify the expertise of these sources, and that their claims, as they related to the documents, didn’t fit the available evidence. (The piece also implied that CBS had consulted these experts before airing the controversial segment, rather than scampering to find them after the fact to buttress their case.)

Finally, on September 20, Dan Rather apologized on the air during the “Evening News.” But his mea culpa was tempered by an attempt to pin the blame on Bill Burkett, from whom Mapes had obtained the documents. Rather stated, “when we interviewed Burkett this past weekend, he changed his story and told us he got the documents from a different source, one we cannot verify. Why did Burkett tell CBS News something he now says is not true? We put the question to him.”

The failure, as the panel notes, was CBS’s fault, not Burkett’s, and just as quickly as it had admitted its mistake it had tried to shift the blame away from itself.

The moral of the story?

The bigger betrayal of the public trust isn’t getting fooled by a source. It’s responding to those questioning your original story with spin presented as news, rather than facts.

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Bryan Keefer was CJR Daily’s deputy managing editor.