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CBS Feeling Heat Over Bush Story

Jan 17, 2005  •  Post A Comment

It will be a long time before CBS News moves out from under the dark cloud-or the microscope.

The recovery will be more painful than the self-inflicted wounds caused by the division’s rush to air a volatile story.

The clock is running on CBS News President Andrew Heyward and “60 Minutes Wednesday.” Both must rise to meet daunting leadership and ratings challenges.

That’s the conventional wisdom in TV news circles a week after the release of the 224-page report resulting from a three-month independent investigation into the Sept. 8 “60 Minutes Wednesday” story that used still-unauthenticated documents as the basis for an attack on President Bush’s Vietnam-era service in the Texas Air National Guard.

Former U.S. Attorney General Dick Thornburgh and retired Associated Press President and CEO Louis Boccardi concluded that those involved in the story, which was rushed onto the air days after the documents were obtained by producer Mary Mapes, were guilty of “myopic zeal.” Those two words may well become the enduring catch phrase for this scandal because they so aptly distill the panel’s summary and because they add up to the perfect pun for the Eye Network. The panel also said it did not find that the zeal was a result of political bias, a verdict not universally accepted.

The panel handed the finished report to CBS Jan. 5.

Hours before CBS released the findings Jan. 10, three CBS News executives were asked to resign and left quietly. Betsy West, the senior VP in charge of CBS News’ prime-time broadcasts, “60 Minutes Wednesday” executive producer Josh Howard and his senior broadcast producer, Mary Murphy, each were well-regarded outside CBS News and will, observers agree, be offered “legit” news jobs after things have quieted down.

The industry prognosis is more bleak for Ms. Mapes, Dan Rather’s star producer, who obtained the documents through a highly suspect source who still has not identified their true origin. Ms. Mapes, who made a name for herself by digging out such scoops as the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib, could resurrect her reputation by breaking some important stories, but it will not be easy for her to find an organization for which to do that.

Mr. Rather was described by the report as stretched so thin by other high-priority assignments that he was reduced to little more than a reader of the story. But he came to symbolize the stonewalling after bloggers raised and pressed questions about the appearance and provenance of the documents that purported to prove the well-connected young Mr. Bush had been evaluated by superiors as a shirker. Close associates of Mr. Rather described him as disconsolate last week.

Mr. Rather announced in November that he will step down as anchor of “CBS Evening News” to focus on reporting for “60 Minutes Wednesday,” which is under the oversight of its founding executive producer Jeff Fager, who is in his freshman season at the helm of its progenitor, Sunday staple “60 Minutes.”

Numerous sources report unhappiness among the Wednesday newsmagazine staffers that Mr. Rather will be hanging his hat where he is associated with so much damage.

Mr. Rather is “a great reporter” who can “report circles around” his critics, said Linda Mason, who was promoted to senior VP of standards and special projects (and will serve in Ms. West’s role until it is filled). In addition to enacting the recommendations made by the Thornburgh-Boccardi panel, Ms. Mason will become more involved more regularly and more quickly as stories are developed for air.

The release of the CBS News report stirred some self-reflection at other network.

In an internal e-mail sent after he read the report, ABC News President David Westin reminded staffers of the ABC “structure of review,” which involves one senior VP and two colleagues with broad review assignments and reinforcement from network lawyers.

“There is no story so urgent or so important that it justifies putting [our] credibility at risk,” said Mr. Westin.

“I think our system, which involves oversight at an earlier point and also the participation of the law department at an earlier point probably would have stopped it,” said NBC News VP Bill Wheatley. He said the CBS News reforms “echo” changes in standards and practices made after a GM truck was rigged to explode for a segment of “Dateline NBC” in November 1992.

Michael Gartner was not forced out as president of NBC News until a few months later, after his swift response to GM’s complaints earned him good reviews and resulted in the exit of the correspondent and three producers associated with the story.

Richard Wald, a former NBC News and ABC News executive and enforcer of standards and practices, said those involved with the incendiary Bush Guard story “got fooled by their need to make CBS News look much more powerful in the eyes of the public.”

Instead, a once promising newsmagazine that had added youthful spins to staples of “60 Minutes” now is jeopardized by a combination of the fallout from the journalistic scandal and the loss of about 17 percent of its audience opposite ABC powerhouse “Lost” this season.

“60 Minutes Wednesday” may not prove strong enough to be renewed for 2005-06.

“It’s certainly possible,” Leslie Moonves, chairman and CEO of CBS and co-president and co-chief operating officer of Viacom, told TelevisionWeek last week.

It is unlikely other CBS News shows could absorb everyone from “60 Minutes Wednesday” should it be canceled, said sources familiar with staffing at CBS News.

As for Mr. Heyward, whose close ties and loyal service to Mr. Moonves are said to be invaluable, he is inevitably under the gun. In numerous conversations last week, industry veterans gave him only a few months before he would resign or be reassigned.

“You cannot have a situation like this without speculation about everyone in the chain of management,” said Mr. Wald. Nonetheless, he observed, Mr. Heyward “has served the company well. They are not foolish people. He is a smart man.”

Mr. Heyward has “a huge responsibility to tidy up the mess and take CBS News forward again,” said Bob Lee, the Schurz Communications executive and past chairman of the CBS affiliates advisory board.

Critics say Mr. Heyward already was overdue on identifying an inspiring successor to Mr. Rather, and he now may have only a few highly pressurized months to lock in both an “Evening News” anchor and a format deemed viable.

Mr. Heyward and “Evening News” executive producer Jim Murphy have been developing options, at least one of which revolved around the pairing of White House correspondent (and leading candidate to succeed Mr. Rather) John Roberts and correspondent Mika Brzezinski.

Mr. Heyward was expected to discuss talent and format possibilities late last week with Mr. Moonves in Los Angeles, where he started his tour of CBS News bureaus to respond to lingering questions from staffers. Mr. Heyward’s next such meeting will be Tuesday in Washington.

Doreen Wade, the Freedom Broadcasting president who is the newly installed chairman of the CBS affiliates advisory board, said she was not surprised at the chorus of angry disbelief that Mr. Heyward had not been ousted.

But she said, “I think he took the appropriate action. Unfortunately, the people who worked for him did not.”

“I’m very confident that the network did what they had to do,” she added.