I, who never watch CBS News, spent yesterday afternoon, reading the lengthy Thornburgh/Boccardi Report. Within its considerable limitations, it is a fine, well—detailed view of the CBS TANG memo scandal. While it could have asked other questions, and utilized other investigative approaches (for example, analyzing the telephone records of various key individuals), given its methodology, it tells us quite a bit that is embarrassing to those who are paying for it.
The Report reveals what most of us who don't watch network news already knew: CBS News is a shoddy operation all around, one more concerned with production values and beating the competition to provocative shows than it is with conveying useful, authentic information to its viewers. And at the conclusion of my read, I think CBS owes one final thing to its audience: a detailed on—air review of the significant evidence contrary to its September broadcasts, which it had and either failed to air or misrepresented.
Since I doubt they will do this, let me review what the Report itself actually reveals.
The report generally indicates that Rather was acting in a Wizard of Oz capacity with no real role in the production of these shows. He is an empty suit, albeit a very well paid one. While the show was being produced, and as the legitimate questions about it were raised, he was very inattentive to anything except a dogged defense, one which enormously overstated the strength of the evidentiary support for the politically significant claims the network was making in the final hours of an election. Even after the questions could no longer be ignored and the network pressed him to join in a mealy mouthed apology, he continued to assert before the panel that he still believed the contents of the document were accurate.
The panel was troubled by this and noted it "seriously questions the authenticity of the documents and their content.' (p. 4, 18—19). It also pointedly observed that "the notion that since the contents of the documents were felt to be true,' demonstrating the authenticity became less important (Rather's last defense after the authenticity claim fell on its face) is "dangerous and ultimately unsustainable territory."
Mapes came off far worse. On every of the many panel findings of fact about the production of the show, its vetting and the questions of political bias, every single thing she reported to the panel was contested by the other witnesses and the facts themselves. Adios, Mary...
The teams which were used to vet the production, too, come off as credulous and incompetent, easily manipulated and thrown off the mark by Mapes whenever they did manage to ask anything significant, though the editors did tone down some of the obviously partisan and irrelevant matters (i.e. statements by the ubiquitous military "expert" Col. Hackworth), which Mapes had originally planned to make part of the show.
Practically no one at CBS looks good in this report, and the details of the network's handling of the firestorm which arose after the airing on September 8 of the original show has a Keystone Kops quality of incompetence and idiocy to it. The first sensible act I can find was to appoint Helen Malmgren, an experienced CBS producer, to check out the documents on September 14 or 15. It took her little time to make a resolution, the authenticity of the documents was seriously in question. (Note to Redstone: Give this woman, the first grown—up in the fiasco, a big raise.)
The two factual matters which understandably were of great concern to the panels——and to me——were the documents' authenticity and the question of political bias. On these, as I noted in my first short reaction, the panel makes clear that, as to the documents, the content, format, provenance (no chain of custody was ever established), production method and variance with official records, and the testimony of those who were there at the time, make them dubious and likely inauthentic. The purported unfamiliarity of the producers with forensic document examination caused them, the Report says, to pick unqualified examiners and grossly misrepresent what they'd said about the documents. While the panel doesn't call them fake, something hard to do because they are not originals, it virtually does. The panel indicates that CBS never had any clear authentication of any of the purported Killian documents from any document examiners and falsely stated otherwise, for almost twelve days after they'd been called in question (p. 150).
As to political bias, the panel, unable to interview non—CBS employees since it lacked subpoena power, noted that CBS certainly created the appearance of bias, particularly by drawing Joe Lockhart of Kerry's campaign into the matter. And the panel notes, indisputably, that the errors in the September 8 production were compounded by the network's strident but baseless defense when it had not adequately probed whether the criticisms had merit (something the panel found, they certainly did).
Among the distortions of the evidence (and there are too many to recount all of them) are the distortions of the statements of Strong, Major General Hodges, Ben Barnes and Mrs. Knox. The panel notes, that while breathtakingly manipulating the evidence at hand, the producers consistently overlooked, in the vetting process and in response to criticism, the evidence that the documents were inauthentic. Including evidence from their own, not particularly first rate examiners Hodges and Matley (a "graphologist", not a document examiner). The CBS News team also buried the information it had that Colonel Walter Staudt, who purportedly ordered Bush's admission into the Texas Air National Guard and a "sugar coating" of his record, had retired 18 months before the critical memo and never exercised his influence on Bush's behalf.
Because the CBS distortion was significant in disseminating the lie (useful to the Kerry campaign as a deflection from Kerry's own record) CBS must reveal to its viewers what it did have even as early as September of last year——plenty of evidence of a much more credible nature that the President had received no preferential treatment at TANG (pp. 46—47), that he'd not been ordered to take a physical, and that he'd completed his service requirements. To leave it to this lengthy, not likely to be widely read report, to clarify this important information would be unconscionable and merely compound the initial injury.
Not only incompetence and distortions of the evidence are criticized by the Report. It observes that the inducements by the producers to Burkett (who was hardly a reliable witness, as the panel observes, along with a further observation that a quick internet search would have alerted the producers) to turn over documents were tagged by the panel as 'unethical newsgathering practices.'
Other bad conduct which the panel notes was the failure to give the White House sufficient knowledge of the contents of the September 8th show in a timely fashion (p. 117). (A neat trick which made it appear unable to respond because the charges had some basis in fact.) This at a time the Kerry campaign, the panel notes, was forwarding documents to Mapes suggesting the White House hadn't turned over all the documents about Bush's service. (In fact, unlike Kerry, George W. Bush signed an authorization allowing for full disclosure of all his personal military records.)
If you want to see the side—splitting showbiz nature of big network news, though, I recommend the reader go to the portion of the report dealing with the internal CBS response after September 14—15, when outside events, mainly an ABC report in which two of its "experts' said they'd never authenticated the documents and Knox revealed the documents were not typed by her, not on a machine in use by TANG, not in a format used by TANG, and related to matters she'd ever heard about.(pp. 199—202) force CBS to acknowledge the game is up.
Clarice Feldman is an attorney in Washington, DC