Mapes: Decision to Air National Guard Story Was Made by CBS Superiors, Including Heyward

Five people who worked on "60 Minutes Wednesday" lost jobs with the show as a result of their involvement in the Sept. 8, 2004, story about President Bush's National Guard service. One of those people is defending her actions and pointing her finger at her superiors.

Mary Mapes, producer of the segment on President Bush's National Guard service, was fired by the network. In a statement released Monday night through her Washington, D.C., attorney, Richard Hibey, Mapes said she was disappointed with the conclusions of the special panel's report.

"I am shocked at the vitriolic scape-goating in Les Moonves' statement. I am very concerned that his actions are motivated by corporate and political considerations -- ratings rather than journalism," the statement said.

Mapes went on to defend the unauthenticated documents and the story saying, "It is noteworthy that the panel did not conclude these documents are false. Indeed, in the end, all the panel did conclude was that there were many red flags that counseled against going to air quickly. I never had control of the timing of any airing of a '60 Minutes' segment; that has always been a decision made by my superiors."

The panel, in its report (see page 94), did say that Mapes reported having asked for more time to produce the story, but the decision was made to move the story, originally scheduled for Sept. 29 to the 8th.

Mapes said, "If there was a journalistic crime committed here, it was not by me."

Mapes said in her statement that she told her superiors "everything."

"There was nothing that was false or misleading," she said. "I am heartened to see that the panel found no political bias on my part, as indeed I have none. For 25 years, I have built a reputation as a fair, honest, and thorough journalist."

Senior broadcast producer Mary Murphy has been asked to resign, as have Josh Howard, executive producer of "60 Minutes Wednesday" and Betsy West, who supervised CBS News primetime programs.

A senior producer in charge of reading scripts -- Esther Kartiganer -- will be reassigned from "60 Minutes Wednesday" to elsewhere at CBS News. (Click here for organizational chart of "60 Minutes Wednesday")

The removals come in response to findings by Dick Thornburgh, former governor and U.S. attorney general, and Louis Boccardi, retired president of the Associated Press. The two men comprised a panel charged with reviewing the events leading up to the Sept. 8 broadcast and the Sept. 20 acknowledgment that the memos used in the story could not be authenticated.

In a statement, CBS CEO Leslie Moonves appears to clear two people. He says of Yvonne Miller, an associate producer working with Mapes, "she did ... show good instincts in this matter, and if she had received even the smallest encouragement from her bosses, she might have made the difference."

Of CBS News president Andrew Heyward, Moonves says, "Heyward explicitly warned West and Howard that 'we will have to defend "every syllable" of the segment...'" Moonves refers to Heyward as "an executive of integrity and talent and the right person to be leading CBS News during this challenging time."

Dan Rather "made the same errors of credulity and over-enthusiasm that beset many of his colleagues in regard to this segment," Moonves says. Moonves also said that Rather "defended the story overzealously afterwards." However, Moonves says given Rather's decision to step out of the anchor chair in March, "we believe any further action would not be appropriate."

Thornburgh and Boccardi spoke with more than 66 people, including 32 within CBS News.

The panel's report states that the problems with the reporting and production of the Sept. 8 story were a result of "a myopic zeal" to be first to air this information.

Moonves' statement reads, in part:

"The Panel finds that the report was "crashed" -- rushed onto the air -- to beat the perceived competition, and it further says "the fact is that basic journalistic steps were not carried out in a manner consistent with accurate and fair reporting, leading to countless misstatements and omissions." Indeed, there were lapses every step of the way -- in the reporting and the vetting of the segment and in the reaction of CBS News in the aftermath of the report.
"As far as the question of reporting is concerned, the bottom line is that much of the September 8th broadcast was wrong, incomplete, or unfair. The Panel found that the producer of the segment, Mary Mapes, ignored information that cast doubt on the story she had set out to report -- that President Bush had received special treatment more than 30 years ago, getting into the Guard ahead of many other applicants, and had done so to avoid service in Vietnam. As the Panel found, statements made by sources were ignored, as were notes in Mapes' own files.
"Most troubling, however, are the Panel's findings regarding Mapes' ongoing contention, later proven to be false, that the documents used in the story were authenticated and had been obtained from a "rock-solid" source who had established, in retrospect, a questionable chain of custody for them. The Panel also found that Mapes presented half-truths as facts to those with whom she worked. And they trusted her, relied on her impressive reputation and proven track record, and did not hold her to the high standards of accountability that have always been the backbone of CBS News reporting."

While the statement -- and the panel's report -- detail journalistic failures, it also rejects the idea of widespread bias. Moonves says, "...while CBS News made numerous errors of judgment and execution in this story, these mistakes were not motivated by any political agenda."

The panel recommended, and Moonves agreed to appoint, a new Senior Vice President of Standards and Special Projects, a job that will report directly to the President of CBS News. Moonves named Linda Mason, a long-time CBS producer and executive producer, to the position.

CBS also promised to make some other changes:

  • "If the validity of information presented in a segment comes under a significant challenge, such as occurred with the 60 Minutes Wednesday segment, reporting on the challenge will not be left entirely in the hands of those who created the segment at issue. Instead, an additional team, led by someone not involved in the original segment, will be assigned to take the lead in the coverage.

  • "In sensitive stories relying on sources who cannot be identified on the air, senior management must, when appropriate, know not just the name of the source, but all relevant background that would assist in editorial news decisions. Difficulties in this regard should be reviewed with the Standards Executive.

  • "CBS News management must make it clear to all personnel that competitive pressure alone cannot be allowed to prompt the airing of a story. As the Panel points out, it would have been better to "lose" the story on the disputed memos to a competitor than to air it short of vetting to the highest standards of fairness and accuracy.

  • "Correspondents, producers and associate producers must disclose to the executive producer and senior producers all relevant information unearthed in reporting the story, both supporting and challenging the segment's findings. 

  • "On primetime broadcasts, all on-camera interviews done for a segment, whether or not aired, should be reviewed by the person assigned script review responsibility to ensure that the segment presents fairly and accurately what was said in the interviews and is not contradicted by interviews which do not appear in the finished segment.

  • "CBS News producers and management will work closely with the CBS Communications area to ensure that all information provided to the department and then disseminated to the public is fair and accurate.

  • "CBS News management should require correspondents to regularly and fully participate to the maximum extent possible in the preparation, vetting and pre-broadcast screening of stories. Management should review instances where the press of other responsibilities does not permit this and make any appropriate changes to the production and vetting structure to take account of reality."
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    Al Tompkins

    Al Tompkins is The Poynter Institute’s senior faculty for broadcasting and online. He has taught thousands of journalists, journalism students and educators in newsrooms around the world.


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