CBS appoints 2 to probe its Guard story
Criticism grows over documents
With pressure mounting on the network, CBS announced yesterday that former US attorney general Dick Thornburgh and retired Associated Press president Louis D. Boccardi will investigate the now-infamous "60 Minutes" broadcast that used disputed documents to raise questions about President Bush's National Guard service.
The network had announced the impending creation of the review panel on Monday, when anchor Dan Rather and CBS News President Andrew Heyward apologized for using the unauthenticated documents. CBS's problems worsened Tuesday when it was reported that producer Mary Mapes helped arrange a phone conversation between Bill Burkett, who gave CBS the documents, and Joe Lockhart, an adviser to Democratic presidential candidate John F. Kerry. Burkett told USA Today that arranging the conversation was a quid pro quo for his turning the documents over to the network.
CBS did not divulge many details about Thornburgh's and Boccardi's assignment but said they would be given the resources to complete their task and that their findings would be made public. A network source said the two men were selected because of their reputations for integrity and independence. Thornburgh -- who served as attorney general under two Republican presidents, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush -- brings investigative credentials to the job. Boccardi was a member of the team commissioned by The New York Times last year to examine that paper's culture after reporter Jayson Blair was found to have fabricated and plagiarized in numerous stories.
Boccardi could not be reached for comment yesterday. Thornburgh released a terse statement saying, "We acknowledge our engagement by CBS. Their announcement speaks for itself."
For the second straight day, Republicans seized on the percolating scandal to try to link the CBS embarrassment and the Kerry campaign. In a conference call, Republican National Committee chairman Ed Gillespie raised the issue of whether "the Kerry campaign [knew] about the existence of the documents in advance of the CBS report." In an interview with the Globe, Kerry spokesman Mike McCurry accused the Bush campaign of "doing their best to change the subject from Iraq." He added: "We're not aware of anyone having an advance knowledge of the document. . . . The only real contact [Lockhart] had with Burkett was at CBS's request." Saying he was speaking personally and not for the campaign, McCurry lauded Thornburgh as "someone with an excellent reputation."
CBS's reputation continued to take a pounding yesterday. Some of it came from inside the building when the New York Daily News quoted "60 Minutes" Sunday edition correspondent Steve Kroft trying to distance that program from the Wednesday night "60 Minutes" team that produced the document story. Meanwhile, much of the increasingly noisy media commentary was critical of the network and its anchorman.
The Hartford Courant editorialized that "CBS should clean house in its production department" and advised Rather to retire. A Philadelphia Inquirer editorial began, "Memo to Dan: It's time to go." The Chicago Tribune detected "a political odor rising from the debacle that has discredited CBS. . . ." A New York Post column called the episode "broadcast journalism's Watergate."
In relying on outside specialists to conduct a postmortem on the "60 Minutes" broadcast and develop recommendations, CBS is following the recent example of two major newspapers that faced credibility-damaging scandals. In the wake of Blair's transgressions, which led to the resignation of executive editor Howell Raines, The New York Times created the so-called Siegal Committee, consisting of 25 staff members and three outside journalists, to scrutinize the newsroom and suggest changes. Earlier this year, a group of outsiders was brought in to look at the workings of USA Today amid revelations that correspondent Jack Kelley had fabricated and plagiarized in stories. USA Today's top editor, Karen Jurgensen, departed in that turmoil.
Joann Byrd, the former Washington Post ombudsman who was a Siegal Committee member, said yesterday that for Thornburgh and Boccardi to be effective, CBS must give them the freedom "to follow the trail wherever it leads. People have to be absolutely candid with the outsiders. Otherwise you've got people covering their own hind ends."
Bill Kovach, a former Atlanta Journal-Constitution editor who sat on the USA Today team, said the investigation should go beyond the actual journalism error to the underlying workplace dynamic. "I learned from my experience," he said, "that the most important thing the examination can do is to clearly understand the culture that's at work."
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