Tuesday, January 11, 2005

The Buck Doesn't Stop Here At CBS

Don't expect the report on the infamous "60 Minutes Wednesday" segment on President Bush's National Guard service to be the last word on who gets tossed from CBS News.
No doubt, CBS Chairman Les Moonves wanted to appear strong and resolute in getting rid of four top dogs in the news division to show how the network is serious about erasing the notion that it ignored facts that got in the way of a good story.
Let's look at how far and wide Moonves traveled on both sides of West 57th St. to find both scoundrels and scapegoats after the report was handed down.

Mary Mapes -- As the story producer, everyone knew she was a goner. Still, you just can't help but marvel at how one of TV journalism's most dogged and fearless reporters (remember, it's the producers that do most of the work at newsmagazines) has had her career snuffed out. Her scoop on Abu Ghraib, among many others, meant a level of trust accorded few others in the business. Take her name off the story and it's doubtless the story would have been held up. Mapes had the street cred to back up her powers of persuasion. But ultimately, a lethal combo of the fear of being scooped, sheer bravado and the lack of hubris did her in. Which is why she was the only one unequivocally fired by Moonves yesterday. The rest were merely asked to resign.

Josh Howard -- This one's a shame. First off, he's a nice guy as well as a solid newsman, two qualities that don't necessarily go hand in hand. I briefly met him during my time at CBS, and he was someone who was quick to inspire confidence. After serving for so long in Don Hewitt's shadow at the "60 Minutes" mothership, he finally got his executive producer gig at the Wednesday edition and had this dumped in his lap. One could argue Howard was guilty of not asking the right questions to Mapes, or enough of them. But maybe he did, and just didn't get the right answers. Shortly after this scandal blew up, Howard had joked to his staff that maybe he should have gone to dental school. No word on what he told the staff during his goodbyes yesterday, but The New York Times reported he was shaken by the dismissal. Too bad.

Mary Murphy -- As Howard's deputy, she was the one who got her hands dirty as the main overlord of each segment's production. That meant she was the one who had to get out the fine tooth comb for all of Mapes's sources and documentation. But Moonves found Murphy was too quick to defer to Mapes and "did not perform her important supervisory function." Fair enough. You could argue either way whether that transgression was sufficient to get canned. But it wouldn't look good for CBS to merely fire Mapes, as she was hardly a lone wolf. And since Murphy's judgments carried sway with Howard, then their guilt by association made it easier for Moonves to send them packing. Which brings us to....

Betsy West -- No doubt waxing nostalgic, right about now, about her 23 years at ABC, the Senior VP in charge of prime time news was put in charge by News President Andrew Heyward to ride herd on the story to ensure it was a slam dunk come air time. But West's undoing, Moonves said was "defending the segment even when it was becoming increasingly apparent that it was flawed." While a Senior VP is not normally hands on with a typical segment, this was anything but typical. So West walks the plank.

But if you let the dominoes fall where they may, why does CBS News chief Andrew Heyward escape relatively unscathed? Heyward issued marching orders, according to Moonves's statement, to West and Howard not to let the "60 Minutes Wednesday" staff "stampede us in any way." He also ordered a close look at the sourcing behind the story after it appeared at a time when everybody and their grandma at CBS was standing behind the story. Despite his plea for new information, none was forthcoming. In other words, Heyward's underlings essentially ignored him. Moonves concedes that raises questions about accountability, which he says will be addressed by "Heyward and me." For now though, he labeled Heyward "the right person to be leading CBS News during this challenging time."

We'll see for how much longer.

And then there's Dan Rather, who Moonves said was guilty of little more than being too trusting of Mapes, with whom he had worked closely for years. Rather didn't hesitate to take at face value what Mapes told him because he never had any reason to. While the report found Rather played a somewhat "minimal role" in the production of the piece, it's easy to conclude his fate would have been different had he not already announced his intention to step down in March as CBS Evening News anchor. That he will remain with "60 Minutes Wednesday is hardly a source of comfort for some, though. http://www.latimes.com/news/custom/showcase/la-na-rather11jan11.story .

What may ultimately have done in Mapes is that her accounts to the investigative panel differed markedly from what other CBS staffers said. Still, The Washington Post quoted Mapes as saying she was up front with the panel and was shocked by what she called "vitriolic scapegoating" by Moonves, who she said was motivated by "ratings rather than journalism." http://www.washingtonpost.com/ac2/wp-dyn/A62690-2005Jan10?language=printer.

Sometimes, though, it's hard to tell the sloppy reporter from the scapegoat. And sometimes it just doesn't matter.

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