AJR  Columns :     FULL COURT PRESS    
From AJR,   February/March 2005

Breaking All the Rules   

CBSí document fiasco is a textbook case of how not to do journalism.

By Rem Rieder
Rem Rieder (rrieder@ajr.umd.edu) is AJR's editor and senior vice president.     

Twenty-seven-year-old Jayson Blair.

In so many articles about the New York Times scandal, the perpetrator was identified, mantra-like, as twenty-seven-year-old Jayson Blair. The implication seemed to be that of course this callow youth was making stuff up when he wasn't stealing it.

Well we can't blame any twenty-seven-year-olds for the Great CBS Meltdown.

Dan Rather, 73, was the public face of the ill-fated "60 Minutes Wednesday" piece on President Bush's National Guard Service. He's also the guy who made a very bad situation positively horrendous with his knee-jerk, smug, above-it-all defense of an obviously flawed report he knew virtually nothing about.

Mary "Myopic Zeal" Mapes, 48, was the producer of the segment, the person who researched the piece and ran roughshod over the vetters and everything else standing in her way to "crash" the story onto the airwaves.

The Jayson Blair and Jack Kelley sagas were awful enough. The damage they did to their newspapers, not to mention journalism itself, was enormous. Yet while it's true the episodes brought to light deeply rooted problems at both news organizations, the actual villains turned out to be pathological scammeisters.

Mapes, on the other hand, is a highly respected producer whose greatest hits include the Abu Ghraib scandal. Rather is, well, Rather, a longtime news anchor, an icon, if a flaky one. Talk about people who should know better.

Reading the report by Dick Thornburgh and Lou Boccardi is as heartbreaking as watching the end of "Million Dollar Baby." You're left dumbfounded by the way experienced journalists at the pinnacle of their profession--and not just Mapes and Rather--managed to violate so many basic rules of the craft: letting the determination to break a story overwhelm due diligence (and wasn't that supposed to be the hallmark of that unruly Internet, not the media elite?); failing to nail down the authenticity of documents; ignoring dissenting voices; relying on a dubious source with an ax to grind. Then, after the segment aired, compounding the sins by stonewalling in the face of obvious and substantial problems and running follow-up stories designed to save face rather than reveal the truth.

You'd think by now everyone would have learned that it's never worth taking a chance with a story that might be true. The glow of the scoop is as evanescent as Ashlee Simpson's career; the price when it blows up can be staggering.

Four people lost their jobs, and one anchor stepped down early; once-mighty CBS News, diminished by years of budget cuts and already a longtime also-ran, was humiliated; journalism's credibility, what's left of it, took a serious hit.

It's long been the received wisdom of the right that the media have a "liberal bias." (Yes, that's the same media that vilified Bill Clinton in the Monica Lewinsky bloodletting and gave President Bush a free pass after 9/11, but whatever.) And Rather has been a particular bÍte noire for conservatives.

The Thornburgh/Boccardi probe rejected the notion that a "political agenda" drove the story. But "60 Minutes Wednesday" sure gave plenty of ammunition to those who want to believe it did by cavalierly airing a bogus piece critical of Bush--on events from long ago--two months before the election. Not to mention Mapes' "highly inappropriate" call to a Kerry operative.

CBS does deserve credit for convening an independent investigation, jettisoning four of those responsible for the fiasco (Mapes among them) and creating the position of standards executive. But did it go far enough? After all, the top leadership at the New York Times and USA Today was swept away in the wake of Blair and Kelley. So why is Andrew Heyward still president of CBS News?

The difference is that the Blair and Kelley investigations revealed deep-seated management problems at the papers; nothing similar emerged in the CBS report. And Heyward did push, albeit ineffectually, to make sure the network wasn't "stampede[d]" into running the story. As for Rather, he has left the anchor chair, but it doesn't seem right that he stays on as a correspondent while others are gone.

Also remaining on the CBS roster is Yvonne Miller, an associate producer tasked with authenticating the documents. While admittedly a neophyte in documentland, Miller expressed growing doubts about the story. Said CBS Chairman and CEO Leslie Moonves, "If she had received even the smallest encouragement from her bosses, she might have made the difference."

Instead, she got run over by the locomotive.