Tuesday, January 11, 2005

The Thornburgh Report, Part 2: The Rest of the Good Stuff

Continuing with my summary of the Thornburgh Report (direct quotes in bold, my comments in italics):

Major General Hodges further told the Panel that General Walter(�Buck�) Staudt had never pressured him regarding Lieutenant Bush, as alleged in the August 18, 1973 memorandum. Moreover, Major General Hodges said that when he finally saw the documents after the September 8 Segment aired, he was convinced that they were not authentic and told this to Rather and Mapes in a telephone call on September 10, 2004.

Major General Hodges gave the Panel a number of specific reasons why he did not believe that the documents were authentic, including the use of a number of allegedly erroneous terms and abbreviations. Some of the deviations from standard format and usage mentioned by Major General Hodges included: (i) the location and format of the signature block; (ii) the abbreviations for Fighter Interceptor Squadron, Texas Air National Guard, group and officer efficiency training report; (iii) the use of the terms �billet� and �billets�; and (iv) the reference to a flight review board. While some of these observations may seem trivial, each branch of the military uses specified standard abbreviations and terms. Major General Hodges did not think that Lieutenant Colonel Killian, with whom he served for 20 years, would have written documents with so many deviations from standard format.

Thus, Major General Hodges poured cold water over the entire story, to no avail.

The September 8 Segment should have received the highest degree of vetting because, among other reasons, the Segment:
1. Was a major investigative piece that was produced in a very short period of time;
2. Was pursued intermittently for over five years, which could cause the correspondent and producer to become too personally invested in the story;
3. Was to be released in the middle of a presidential campaign and was highly negative to one candidate (President Bush);
4. Involved a source who did not want his identity disclosed;
5. Involved a second source who had never been located by 60 Minutes Wednesday;
6. Relied on documents that could not be verified by their purported author because he was deceased;
7. Relied on documents that were not originals; and
8. Was the first original story aired under the direction of the new 60 Minutes Wednesday management team.
The Panel finds that the vetting process for the September 8 Segment was seriously flawed. The Panel believes that this was caused in large part by the speed with which this Segment was produced.

Number 2 above is the single most astute statement in the report.

This alleged confirmation by Major General Hodges started to march 60 Minutes Wednesday into dangerous and ultimately unsustainable territory: the notion that since the content of the documents was felt to be true, demonstrating the authenticity of the documents became less important.

This is in line with Rather�s lame initial 'true in substance' excuse.

The Panel was not able to reach a definitive conclusion as to the authenticity of the Killian documents. However, Mapes made oral and written presentations to the Panel during its investigation in an effort to demonstrate that the content of the Killian documents was in fact authentic. These presentations were done primarily by comparing the Killian documents withofficial Bush records to show how well she believed that the Killian documents �meshed� with the official Bush records. The Panel finds that the meshing analysis submitted by Mapes does not withstand scrutiny for two reasons. First, in many instances, the content of the Killian documents does not mesh well substantively with the official Bush records. Second, the Killian documents vary in significant ways from the standard format and jargon of documents issued by the 147th Fighter Interceptor Group in the early 1970s.

Here the panel plays a little CYA, but makes it clear that Mapes was reaching, to say the least.

[In a simply delicious section, the panel goes into great detail about false statements (i.e., lies) that CBS made in the aftermath. In the interest of brevity, I have omitted much good material, but the following is too good to pass up.]

Friday, September 10, should have been a watershed day in dealing with the growing controversy about the Segment. First, CBS News President Heyward, concerned about mainstream media�s increasingly critical reporting about the Segment, directed Betsy West early that morning to investigate the details of the examiners� opinions and confidential sources that allegedly supported the Segment. No such investigation was done at that time. Had this directive been followed promptly, the Panel does not believe that 60 Minutes Wednesday would have publicly defended the Segment for another 10 days.
Second, during the day, three events took place that should have alerted CBS News management that the reporting for the Segment may have been flawed. First, the CBS News strategy to get 60 Minutes Wednesday�s document examiners to defend the Segment was not followed, as only Matley made an appearance. As noted above, Matley did not attest to the authenticity of the documents. Second, a respected typewriter expert, Peter Tytell, contacted Miller and Howard and explained in detail why he believed the Killian documents were likely fakes. His views were not pursued or analyzed in part because 60 Minutes Wednesday was searching only for experts who would defend the September 8 Segment. Third, Major General Hodges contacted Mapes and Rather and told them that Mapes had misquoted him about his alleged confirmation of the Killian documents and now that he had had the opportunity to review them, he believed that the documents were not authentic. Neither Mapes nor Rather asked Major General Hodges to explain why he believed the documents were not authentic and the Panel finds no discussion of this conversation with others at CBS News at the time.

Again, I have to say this is no whitewash. It�s hard to imagine more damaging conclusions that those found above.

Rather told the Panel that he delivered the apology [on September 20th] and gave the WCBS interview in support of CBS News� decision that the time had come to stop defending the Segment and, indeed, to disown it. He told the Panel, however, that he did not fully agree with this decision and still believes that the content of the documents is accurate. The Panel is troubled by these conflicting statements.

Holy Cow, after all this Rather still defends the documents! Have I mentioned that he�s a pompous blowhard?

The Panel is unable to resolve definitively the conflict between the accounts of Howard and Mapes concerning whether permission was given to speak with a representative of the Kerry campaign in connection with the TexANG story. Whether or not permission was given to Mapes, the Panel finds this contact to be highly inappropriate. The September 8 Segment had a strong political focus and it was to air in the middle of a hotly contested presidential campaign. While it is certainly proper to receive information from a variety of sources, this contact crossed the line as, at a minimum, 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.

A news organization�s assisting a campaign as opposed to reporting on a story...that's why CBS is the Tiffany network! That�s worth repeating � a news organization�s assisting a campaign as opposed to reporting on a story�what liberal media, Eric Alterman?

I�ll conclude this two-part post with a listing of the panel�s recommendations. Of course, there�s much more, but you�ve got the juicy bits here. I still believe Rather�s head should roll, but that�s the choice of CBS, not the panel.

� Create a new senior Standards and Practices position (�Standards Executive�), outside of the production structure of 60 Minutes Wednesday and reporting directly tothe President of CBS News, whose mission would be as follows. Before airing any 60 Minutes Wednesday segment that involves investigative reporting, confidential sources or the authentication and/or chain of custody of materials received from outside sources, the Standards Executive must be consulted and must review whetherproper processes have been followed. The Panel observes that CBS News has had a person in charge of �Standards and Practices,� but this position has not been tasked to function as outlined here. The Standards Executive should have the authority to delay or veto the segment.
� The Standards Executive would also be identified throughout 60 Minutes Wednesday as someone with whom the staff can communicate on a confidential basis, withoutfear of retaliation, if they have concerns that a planned story or segment may not meetCBS News� Standards of accuracy and fairness, or for any other reason.
� If the validity of information presented in a 60 Minutes Wednesday segment comesunder a significant challenge, such as occurred with the September 8 Segment, reporting on the challenge should not be left largely or entirely in the hands of those who created the segment at issue. Instead, an additional team, led by someone notinvolved in the original segment, should be assigned to take the lead in the coverage. The Panel notes that once the attacks began on the September 8 Segment, essentiallythe same people who developed the challenged segment had control of the news reports defending it. This resulted in opportunities for other news organizations to dothe reporting that exposed serious problems in the Segment.
� The same standards for accuracy and fairness prescribed by CBS News� Standards Manual for its news stories should be applied to its press releases and public statements. That did not consistently occur here, as our Report on the Aftermath illustrates. CBS News management and the CBS Communications Group should coordinate their efforts and develop a protocol that accomplishes this objective.
� Competitive pressures are a fact of life in journalism and may impact the timing of a news story. The leadership of CBS News should make clear to all personnel that competitive pressures cannot be allowed to prompt the airing of a story before it is ready. It would have been better to �lose� the story on the Killian documents to acompetitor than to air it short of investigating and vetting to the highest standards of fairness and accuracy.
� In sensitive stories relying on sources who cannot be identified on the air, senior management must, as appropriate, know not just the name of the source, but all relevant background that would assist in news decisions. Limitations in this regard must be reviewed with the Standards Executive that the Panel has proposed.

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