Accuracy in Media

It is apparent that CBS News producer Mary Mapes hasn’t learned anything after being fired for using forged documents to smear President Bush. She calls White House official Karl Rove the “mastermind” of the attacks on her story but admits to the Washington Post that she has no proof of that. The Mapes performance, which is designed to sell her new book, can only diminish the reputation of journalism even more. Have we reached a point in journalism where the facts and evidence simply don’t matter?

Her bizarre performance continued on CNN’s Larry King Live, where she was asked if the Bush administration put pressure on CBS to retract or “suppress” the story. “I don’t know. I have no evidence that they put direct pressure on,” she said. But she went on to complain about the “thousands of e-mails from conservative bloggers,” as if the White House had been behind them. So was this “indirect pressure” from the Bush Administration? That was the implication from Mapes?again without any proof.

This is reminiscent of former Democratic Vice President Al Gore’s recent speech in which he falsely claimed that Dan Rather was “forced out of his anchor job after angering the White House?”

What we are seeing here is an attempt to rewrite history, to obscure the fact that CBS tried to subvert the President during the heat of a campaign using phony documents. The Mapes version is that the story was true and that CBS retracted under pressure from the White House or CBS parent Viacom. The only problem with the Mapes version is that there is absolutely no proof that it is true.

Mapes should have the honesty and integrity to thank the bloggers for exposing her fake documents. The record shows that the source of the phony documents, Bill Burkett, was an anti-Bush activist who admitted lying about where he got them. 

In her book, Truth and Duty: The Press, the President, and the Privilege of Power, and in the excerpt appearing in Vanity Fair magazine, Mapes comes across as someone trapped in a Kafkaesque nightmare for which she bears no responsibility. It is truly pathetic. Having humiliated herself in the original scandal, she is now compounding the outrage by defending the indefensible.

Some basic facts?if these are still permissible in modern journalism?are in order. The story, reported by Dan Rather, was aired on September 8, 2004, just two months before the presidential election. It alleged, as described by Mapes, that Bush’s commander in the Guard, Lt. Col. Jerry Killian, “had not approved of Bush’s departure from the Guard in 1972 to work on a U.S. Senate campaign for Republican Winton Blount in Alabama,” and “seemed to indicate that Killian had ordered Bush to take a physical that was never completed” and that “Killian had been pressured from higher up to write better reports on Bush than were merited by the future president’s performance.”

But the story began to unravel almost immediately, when CBS posted documents it had obtained that supposedly had been authenticated, and were the foundation for the story. It turned out that the documents were phony, and Accuracy in Media recently honored two of the so-called “people in pajamas” who posted their observations on the FreeRepublic website, and who were among those most responsible for bringing this to light. Mapes provides the atmospherics as to what was going on behind the scenes at CBS, and it is not a pretty picture.

For example, as the story about the story began gaining momentum and was featured on the Drudge Report, Mapes heard from Rather. “I knew I could count on Dan,” she wrote. “He told me that he had confidence in the story and that he was lucky to work with me. He signed off by saying something that had become a shorthand for us over the years: ‘F-E-A.’ That was code for ‘F? ‘Em All,’ a sentiment that needs to be expressed from time to time in any newsroom. Dan was too much of a gentleman to say the real thing?at least most of the time.”

So this was the initial Rather reaction?profanity. 

After a follow-up story the next week, and 12 days after the original story aired, CBS News announced it could no longer stand behind the story, nor the authenticity of the documents. They announced the creation of a panel to investigate what happened.

Mapes is at odds with other accounts of what happened and what was said. One of her sources was Killian’s commander, Major General Bobby Hodges. Mapes says that Hodges confirmed the contents of the memos to her, and a second time after the story had started falling apart. She said he called to say that he too believed the memos were forgeries, but, she says, he still “admitted he had indeed said all those things.” But Hodges told the CBS panel that he did not confirm the contents of the memos.

Mapes accuses then-CBS News president Andrew Heyward of telling her, “If the blogs are using people that are lousy analysts to make their case, then let’s get some lousy analysts of our own.” But Heyward, recently replaced at CBS News, has denied ever saying that. 

Interestingly, she writes of her friends and colleagues calling to congratulate her after the initial story ran. One has to wonder if they had done a story like this on John Kerry, if she would have gotten the same congratulations. Mapes was in contact with the Kerry campaign while preparing the story.

One sensitive issue is liberal bias at CBS News. Mapes says that the panel that investigated Rathergate, headed by Richard Thornburgh and Louis Boccardi, was determined to uncover liberals at the network, in the same way that Senator Joseph McCarthy had tried to find communists in the government. Despite Rather’s well-known anti-Republican animus and fundraising for the Texas Democratic Party, the panel ultimately concluded that there was no evidence of political bias by Mapes and Rather in putting together the report. 

On the other hand, it did find that Mapes knew that, contrary to her report, George W. Bush offered to go to Vietnam while in the National Guard unit. This was a critical fact, undermining the entire premise of the CBS News story that Bush went into the National Guard to avoid Vietnam. We wonder how this omission can be explained, other than by liberal political bias against Bush.

While Mapes cites former Texas speaker of the house and lieutenant governor Ben Barnes on his alleged role in helping Bush get into the Texas Air National Guard, it turns out she selectively edited out a key part of the interview that made it clear he didn’t actually know what effect his alleged intervention had. In any case, there was no waiting list to get in the unit as a fighter-pilot, the slot taken by Bush which required 53 weeks of active-duty training.

Mapes takes credit for breaking the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal with Rather. “Dan and I had broken the Abu Ghraib prison-abuse story in late April,” she writes, “a few days before Seymour Hersh of The New Yorker came out with his story on the subject.” In fact, this story was being investigated by the Pentagon well before CBS began showing the photos of the alleged abuse, and had been reported several times in the media. It turned out that a key source in the story was a soldier subsequently found guilty of abusing Iraqi prisoners in the scandal. He was attempting to shift the blame on to higher-ups for his criminal activity. Mapes and Rather went along with his ploy.

There are many more revealing but bizarre comments by Mapes in the 8,000-plus-word Vanity Fair excerpt. She says, for example, “If I was an idiot, it was for believing in a free press that is able to do its job without fear or favor.” No, she practiced irresponsible journalism that was designed to alter a presidential election and thought she could get away with it. That was the idiocy.

Perhaps Mapes is sincere in believing that she and Rather did excellent reporting, and were truthful every step of the way. Or perhaps it’s all bluster, designed to obscure the fact that she got caught trying to influence the outcome of a presidential election with a bogus story.

We tend to believe the latter theory?that she is trying to divert attention from her own shameful performance. Since Judith Miller of the New York Times failed as a media martyr, Mapes is now auditioning for that role. We’re not buying it.

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