RatherGate Investigation Report Released

The REPORT OF THE INDEPENDENT REVIEW PANEL – DICK THORNBURGH AND LOUIS D. BOCCARDI [pdf] [Update: Kevin Aylward has a Web-friendly version] has been released. It’s over 221 pages and I haven’t read it, nor am I likely to in all honesty. The executive summary, however, makes it clear that the panel did not try to whitewash CBS’ failings:

The stated goal of CBS News is to have a reputation for journalism of the highest quality and unimpeachable integrity. To meet this objective, CBS News expects its personnel to adhere to published internal Standards based on two core principles: accuracy and fairness. The Panel finds that both the September 8 Segment itself and the statements and news reports by CBS News that followed the Segment failed to meet either of these core principles.

So far, so good.

The Panel has not been able to conclude with absolute certainty whether the Killian documents are authentic or forgeries.

What kind of standard of proof is “absolute certainty”? We put people to death based on mere “beyond a reasonable doubt” and hold people liable for people hundreds of millions in civil damaged on mere “preponderance of the evidence.” “Absolute certainty” is not only impossible to achieve but, frankly, rather a strange bar if “unimpeachable integrity” is the standard.

However, the Panel has identified a number of issues that raise serious questions about the authenticity of the documents and their content. With better reporting, these questions should have been raised before the September 8 Segment aired. While the focus of the Panel̢۪s investigation at the outset was on the Killian documents, the investigation quickly identified considerable and fundamental deficiencies relating to the reporting and production of the September 8 Segment and the statements and news reports during the Aftermath. These problems were caused primarily by a myopic zeal to be the first news organization to broadcast what was believed to be a new story about President Bush̢۪s TexANG service, and the rigid and blind defense of the Segment after it aired despite numerous indications of its shortcomings.

Pretty damning.

The most serious defects in the reporting and production of the September 8 Segment were:

    1. The failure to obtain clear authentication of any of the Killian documents from any document examiner;
    2. The false statement in the September 8 Segment that an expert had authenticated the Killian documents when all he had done was authenticate one signature from one document used in the Segment;
    3. The failure of 60 Minutes Wednesday management to scrutinize the publicly available, and at times controversial, background of the source of the documents, retired Texas Army National Guard Lieutenant Colonel Bill Burkett;
    4. The failure to find and interview the individual who was understood at the outset to be Lieutenant Colonel Burkett̢۪s source of the Killian documents, and thus to establish the chain of custody;
    5. The failure to establish a basis for the statement in the Segment that the documents “were taken from Colonel Killian’s personal files”;
    6. The failure to develop adequate corroboration to support the statements in the Killian documents and to carefully compare the Killian documents to official TexANG records, which would have identified, at a minimum, notable inconsistencies in content and format;
    7. The failure to interview a range of former National Guardsmen who served with Lieutenant Colonel Killian and who had different perspectives about the documents;
    8. The misleading impression conveyed in the Segment that Lieutenant Strong had authenticated the content of the documents when he did not have the personal knowledge to do so;
    9. The failure to have a vetting process capable of dealing effectively with the production speed, significance and sensitivity of the Segment; and
    10. The telephone call prior to the Segment̢۪s airing by the producer of the Segment to a senior campaign official of Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry Рa clear conflict of interest Рthat created the appearance of a political bias.

Once questions were raised about the September 8 Segment, the reporting thereafter was mishandled and compounded the damage done. Among the more egregious shortcomings during the Aftermath were:

    1. The strident defense of the September 8 Segment by CBS News without adequately probing whether any of the questions raised had merit;
    2. Allowing many of the same individuals who produced and vetted the by-then controversial September 8 Segment to also produce the follow-up news reports defending the Segment;
    3. The inaccurate press statements issued by CBS News after the broadcast of the Segment that the source of the documents was “unimpeachable” and that experts had vouched for their authenticity;
    4. The misleading stories defending the Segment that aired on the CBS Evening News after September 8 despite strong and multiple indications of serious flaws;
    5. The efforts by 60 Minutes Wednesday to find additional document examiners who would vouch for the authenticity of the documents instead of identifying the best examiners available regardless of whether they would support this position; and
    6. Preparing news stories that sought to support the Segment, instead of providing accurate and balanced coverage of a raging controversy.

And this is only the highlights of what they did wrong! Basically, CBS absolutely abrograted its journalistic responsibilities. It did nothing right.

The Panel expresses the earnest hope, however, that the failures identified in this Report will not induce timidity at CBS News or chill its investigative reporting. Done accurately and fairly, investigative reporting serves a critical role in a free society. Done inaccurately, it can cause great harm. The recommendations made by the Panel at the end of this Report will, we hope and expect, strengthen 60 Minutes Wednesday and CBS News̢۪ capacity to fulfill this role.

Indeed, this is the rub. We want our journalists to be aggressive and to operate with something less than an “absolute certainty” threshold. We want them to be objective and thorough, however.

Others blogging:
Hat tips to Taegan Goddard and Matt Margolis

Jeff Jarvis has lots of analysis and reports that

CNN just announced that three execs at CBS — including the top two producers of 60 Minutes II — have been asked to resign and the fourth, Mary Mapes, was fired.

Lorie Byrd has lots of analysis and observes,

I find it interesting that the CBS story notes “the correspondent on the story, CBS News anchor Dan Rather, is stepping down as anchor of CBS Evening News” in the same section as the forced resignations and termination. Is that an implied admission that this is why Rather stepped down when he did? If so, then why is he allowed to stay on as a 60 Minutes correspondent? That is the show which aired the segment for goodness sake.

Michelle Malkin gives a sardonic “You think” to the report’s conclusion that, “it gave the appearance of a political bias and could have been perceived as a news organization’s assisting a campaign as opposed to reporting on a story.”

Hugh Hewitt disagrees with my assessment, calling the report a “whitewash.”

CBS got what it wanted –a slap on the wrist, an apparent wrap-up with the dismissal of some underlings. The culture of undisclosed bias gets a pass, and the obvious corruption of the “news” process in the service of the Democratic Party is classified as “unknowable” because Dan Rather and Mary Mapes said they weren’t partisans? What a joke, as transparent a whitewash as the documents were forgeries.

Dodd Harris is similarly inclined:

Colour me unimpressed. Let’s count ourselves lucky that the “investigation”, while unable to find evidence that “report was fueled by a political agenda”,* at least concluded that it “was neither fair nor accurate.”

Paul at Wizbang, though, is pleased at the bottom line: the finding that CBS lied to the American people.

Steven Taylor, though, gives a “You have, got to be kidding me” to the panel’s reluctance to call the documents an outright forgery–and reminds us of the evidence.

Bill at INDC Journal is “cautiously optimistic” and has a link roundup of his own.

Related news:
CBS Ousts 4 For Bush Guard Story (CBS News)

Four CBS News employees, including three executives, have been ousted for their role in preparing and reporting a disputed story about President Bush’s National Guard service. The action was prompted by the report of an independent panel that concluded that CBS News failed to follow basic journalistic principles in the preparation and reporting of the piece. The panel also said CBS News had compounded that failure with a “rigid and blind” defense of the 60 Minutes Wednesday report.

Asked to resign were Senior Vice President Betsy West, who supervised CBS News primetime programs; 60 Minutes Wednesday Executive Producer Josh Howard; and Howard̢۪s deputy, Senior Broadcast Producer Mary Murphy. The producer of the piece, Mary Mapes, was terminated. The correspondent on the story, CBS News anchor Dan Rather, is stepping down as anchor of CBS Evening News.

“We deeply regret the disservice this flawed 60 Minutes Wednesday report did to the American public, which has a right to count on CBS News for fairness and accuracy,” said CBS President Leslie Moonves.

FILED UNDER: Blogosphere, Media
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Bithead says:

    And on the basis of the reluctance to rule on those documents… in spite of the small mountain of evdience that it was forged, (and add to that, that Rather still has his head) I will call the whole thing what it is; a whitewash.

  2. H. Lewis says:

    Rather and Heyward must be fired. To continue this cover up will bring down CBS and Viacom. This report says to the American people that you are Stupid Stupid Stupid and you should believe there was no intent to infuence the election.

  3. jo macdougal says:

    The Rathergate reporting is a sham just as Rathergate was. No one has been fired!

  4. Rod Stanton says:

    The Rathergate Report is a sham because the panel had 2 Bush bashers on it. Of course they found no political motive; they set out to find none.