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Feb. 1, 2005

SCO exclusive interview on CBS docs investigation

by Michael Bushnell, Page Editor
On September 8, 2004, CBS News broadcasted a report on their newsmagazine "60 Minutes II" (now called "60 Minutes Wednesday") that was supposedly based on new documents said to contain damaging information on President Bush's time in the Texas Air National Guard in 1972. The documents, claimed to have been written by the late Col. Jerry Killian, reported that Bush directly refused orders from those higher up on the Texas ANG chain of command.

The documents' authenticity could not be proved, and what ensued was an outcry that embarrassed CBS News' credibility. Charges of political bias were hurled at the network, and on September 20, Dan Rather, Editor-in-Chief of "60 Minutes Wednesday," issued an on-air apology for both the network's airing of the program in the first place, and for his staunch defense of the report's accuracy thereafter.

On September 25, CBS president Leslie Moonves announced the appointment thereafter of an independent investigation panel to diagnose what mistakes were made during the production of the report and how they could be prevented in the future. The panel, led by former Pennsylvania Governor and U.S. Attorney General Richard Thornburgh and Louis Boccardi, the former president of the Associated Press, issued a 224-page report on January 5, 2005 that detailed many faults of those involved with the TV segment.

Following the release of the commission report, CBS responded by firing four staffers involved with the documents story, including lead producer Mary Mapes, the Dallas bureau chief who obtained the documents from Texas ANG Col. Bill Burkett, a staunch critic of Mr. Bush. Mr. Rather was not punished, but will retire from his post at "The CBS Evening News" in March of this year.

Governor Thornburgh and his chief counsel on this report, Michael Missal, sat down with Silver Chips Online at the Governor's office in Washington on a chilly January morning to discuss how the report was put together and much more.

Silver Chips Online: First of all, how did you and Mr. Boccardi get approached to handle this investigation?

Gov. Richard Thornburgh: One morning I got a call from the president of CBS [Leslie Moonves] saying that they were committed to carrying out a review of the Sept. 8 segment on "60 Minutes Wednesday", and if I would be willing to consider being one of the persons, with Mr. Boccardi, to carry out that task. And, it didn't take me long to make up my mind; it would be a very challenging assignment, and we got to work on it almost immediately.

S: How much time did you spend on this investigation; how many documents did you read? How many interviews did you conduct?

Thornburgh: We began our inquiry in late September, and for all intents and purposes, finished it in late December, so it was about three months. It was pretty constant during that period of time. We had to recruit a team to carry out the investigation, and we interviewed 66 witnesses, and examined thousands of documents, all sorts of different communications, like back and forth e-mails, other corporate documents and the like. By the time we were done with it, I think we felt we had our arms around it pretty well.

S: When Mr. Moonves and CBS approached you to do this report, did they have a set of guidelines that they wanted you to focus on, or did you have free rein to do anything you wanted?

Thornburgh: We wouldn't have done it if we had been constrained. We said we would go where the evidence leads. [Laughs]

S: And to sum?

T: I'm laughing because that's the title of the book ("Where The Evidence Leads") there that I wrote, my autobiography.

S: That's a good plug, I'll get that in there.

T: Available at bookstores everywhere.


S: CBS provided you with most of the documents?

T: Most of them; they came from CBS employees who were involved with the production of the show, and some who were not involved with the production. And then there were people outside of CBS, whom we needed information from.

S: How much of an idea do you have of who gave CBS' main source for this report, [Ret. Lieutenant Colonel Bill] Burkett with the questionable documents, or if he made those himself?

T: [Laughs] That's the big unanswered question. He did not - he was unwilling to talk to us, so we didn't get any story directly from him, and he's given two or three different stories to the people at CBS. To this day, no one can establish with any certainty where the documents came from.

S: Can you surmise why Mr. Burkett didn't want to talk to you?

T: He felt that he had been treated badly by CBS, and he saw us as an extension of CBS, even though we were totally independent from CBS; we tried right up to the very moment that we presented our report to convince him that it would be in his best interest to speak to us, but he didn't see it that way.

S: In the report, you don't say for sure, with absolute certainty, that the documents aren't false. In what scenario could they be legitimate, and do you think that the information in the documents is true even if the documents themselves aren't legit?

T: Well, interestingly enough, the focus of our inquiry was not on whether the documents were accurate or not. What we looked at was the process carried out to produce the program that was carried out on September 8. We found enough questions about the authenticity of the documents to come to the conclusion that it was unwise and inappropriate for CBS to have aired that program based on these documents. Moreover, we found that they inaccurately stated that the documents had be authenticated by experts that they had engaged, when our interviews of the experts and our examination of the records had indicated that no one had authenticated these documents. I think we have our own suspicions about whether or not the documents are accurate, but that really wasn't what we were chosen to do. We were not to replicate their investigation.

S: So it was less on saying they were false and more about saying this is why they made a mistake, this is how they messed up?

T: What kind of journalism did they practice, and our verdict was pretty negative on that.

S: When CBS said on the show that they had the document authenticated, that wasn't true?

T: [Pauses] I want to be careful and fair...

S: Sure.

T: Let's say it wasan "exaggeration." They had obtained one expert's opinion, that one signature was authentic. But that's a far cry from saying that their experts had authenticated all the documents. So there was a little bit of exaggeration there. Plus the fact that some of their experts really told them that they had serious problems about the authenticity of the documents, and they didn't put that fact on the air. When we were looking at the quality of [CBS's] journalism, there were real shortcomings there.

S: What experts did you speak to?

T: We spoke to all four of the experts originally engaged by CBS

S: None of whom certified the documents originally, right?

T: Marcel Matley authenticated the signature on one document. Or two documents...

Michael Missal: Only one document"

T: Had the signature, that's right. Anyway, we also spoke to two experts that CBS engaged after the show had aired. And there's a whole story there too because they apparently had only looked for experts that would support their position. We talked to an expert in typeface who never was really consulted by CBS, although he offered his views, but they were rejected, quite possibly because they were at odds with CBS' views. We talked to one other expert who had been engaged by CBS in the first round but who never gave an opinion; his opinion was then sought after the broadcast.

S: Was everybody other than Mr. Burkett cooperative with you in the interviews?

T: Yes, and in some cases we had people back for second or third interviews. Some of our interviews were conducted by conference call because people were in Texas and we were in New York or here in Washington, but by and large, I would say everybody was forthcoming. There was some hesitancy about producing notes, but that was overcome, and we felt we got as complete a record as we could, of course, absent Mr. Burkett's participation.

S: Most of the interviews were conducted here?

T: Most of them were in New York. A number were here, a couple in Texas, and some by phone from each of those sites. I've estimated that about 85 percent were participated by both Mr. Boccardi and me, another 10 percent one or the other, and another five percent, which is the balance, were by our counsel, [D.C. law firm Kirkpatrick & Lockhart Nicholson Graham, L.L.P., where Governor Thornburgh's office is and where this interview was conducted] who interviewed witnesses of lesser importance who we weren't able to get to. We tried to make sure that we had comparative ears, and eyes, at least, plus our counsel, so that we didn't run the risk of getting something wrong.

S: Are you satisfied with the disciplinary actions that [CBS President] Leslie Moonves took in firing four people involved with the production of the controversial 60 Minutes II piece? Was there any one who, in your mind, should have been punished more?

T: Well...[pause] Let me answer that this way: we were not asked for any observations or recommendations about personnel actions. We were told to develop a factual record, as fully and complete as we could, to provide a basis for CBS taking whatever action they felt was appropriate. I'm not comfortable assessing what their action was; I think we did say we didn't see anything inappropriate in what they did, but we're not about to second guess what their actions were.

S: How has the reaction been, for the most part, to the panel report? Have people been satisfied with it?

T: It's been predictable. Those people who are George Bush supporters criticized us for not finding explicitly some bias underlying the program. Those people who are Dan Rather supporters felt that we were probably too harsh on the production team. That's not a bad position to be in. If you're unable to satisfy both ends of the spectrum, then you probably did your job fairly well. We were satisfied that we did a professional job, and a lot of the credit belongs to [chief counsel to the panel] Mike Missal and his team of lawyers, because they had been working around the clock on this.

S: Who wrote the actual 224-page report?

T: It was a group effort. I think I can fairly characterize Mr. Missal, our lead counsel, as the editor. But everyone made contributions, and very constructive changes and additions developed during the process of putting the report together. It's a very difficult task, when you have so many different people working on it, to come up with a consensus, but lo and behold, it happened.

S: Some conservative columnists have been critical of the report, and have basically said that the report failed to shed any new light on the investigation, beyond a few details. Do you feel satisfied with the work you've done, and is there anything you regret about the report?

T: I'm satisfied that our report is faithful to the assignment that we received. A lot of the criticism calls upon us to make conclusions on the basis of insufficient evidence. And if we were to have done that, we would have duplicated the very faults we criticized on the part of CBS. We did take note of some insensitivity on the part of the production team to the appearance of bias; there's no question about that. They used sources that were almost exclusively anti- President Bush. Some of the members of the production team concealed this from other members involved in the process. They contacted the Kerry campaign, of all things, in a most inappropriate manner, and all those things tend to create an impression that there is actual bias that prompted the report. Our view is that the failures were largely induced by the haste in which the segment was put together. After all, they got their first document, and just six days later, aired a program on national TV. That haste caused a lot of shortcuts to be taken in the vetting process of the documents, and the handling of the experts. There was also another factor at work; this was the first production of a new team at "60 Minutes Wednesday", and we couldn't help but feel that there was a great deal of deference given to the star producer, Mary Mapes, and to Dan Rather, the face of CBS TV, that kind of cut short the kind of careful examination that took place.

S: Why do you think there was such a huge rush to air this piece?

T: Competition. Mary Mapes repeatedly, in her e-mails, made reference to the fact that a number of other news organizations were on this same story, and she kept saying, in no uncertain terms, that she wanted this story, and she feared she might lose it if it were delayed. It was originally scheduled to air on September 29, which would have given them an additional three weeks. Then there was a proposal somewhere made along the way that it be shown not on Wednesday the 8th, but on Sunday the 12th, and that was scuttled as well. There was just a determination to get this program on Wednesday the 8th, after what turned out to be wholly insufficient time to gather and verify the facts needed.

Mike Missal: And just to put an exclamation point on that comment, a few hours later, USA Today published the story with the exact same document.

S: And I read that USA Today, after this investigation came out, they had an editorial that didn't mention themselves, but completely laid into CBS News.

T: [Laughs] They washed their hands of it. They pushed CBS into the trash. [Laughs]

S: Was there any one person who you think was most culpable for this going out? What do you think was the biggest error that was made?

T: We really found that there was almost a complete breakdown of all the kinds of journalistic safe guards that exist, and I think it wouldn't be proper to finger one person as responsible. There were a lot of folks that fell down on the job, so to speak. The biggest single mistake, as I indicated, was the haste with which this was put on the air. If they had allowed a little more time-even if they had aired it on Sunday-a little more time for examination of the documents by the experts, a little more plumbing in the background of the source, a few more tough follow-up questions to the producer. I'm not sure that would have made a difference necessarily, but it would have allowed any time for taking a deep breath and saying "do we really want to go ahead with this program?

S: Is there any one who you wanted to talk to, aside from Mr. Burkett, who was unwilling to talk to you, or whom you thought wasn't as honest as you would have liked?

T: Mr. Burkett's first story identified his source as a man named George Conn, but he later repudiated that. CBS had, according to Ms. Mapes, made a pass at contacting Mr. Conn, but never did. He was in Germany, and she called his home in Texas and never really made an effort to follow up. Burkett said that Conn would deny that he was the source of the documents, so I'm not sure we could have gotten with him, but we surely would have liked to talk to him, and we contacted him several times, but he never responded.

S: What questions that weren't entirely solved do you wish could have been better answered?

T: There were a lot of unanswered questions, and the basic one was where the documents came from, and we were not able to establish that. The answer to that may be forthcoming someday, but we searched exhaustively for the answer to that question but were unable to provide it, nor was any one else, to my knowledge.

S: Do we know how many copies there are of the documents in question?

T: We know these were multi-generational copies, that is to say, that these were not original copies. The originals are kind of shrouded in mystery anyway. We're not really sure of anything concerning how these documents came to be in Mr. Burkett's hands. Sad but true.

S: So you don't know if they were old forgeries, or if someone had written them up right before they got into CBS' hands?

T: The experts tell us that you can't do any dating or any analysis of the ink or any of those technical things; in fact two of the experts said that there was no way they could authenticate these from the get go, because they were copies. We also learned that there are three normal ways to authenticate a document. Number one is if you interview the person who allegedly authored the documents" in this case he was dead. Number two would be testimony coming from some one who saw the documents being made, and there is no such person here. And number three would be establishing what we call a "chain of custody; that is somebody who did see the [document] produced and saw it through all the successive hand-downs before it got to the network. We didn't have any of those. There was no conventional way an expert could authenticate the document. Now on an original document they could use all sorts of very sophisticated chemical analyses, but not on a copy.

S: One of the biggest conclusions made in the report was that you found that CBS had no political bias in making this report. What type of proof would have been needed to conclude that CBS did in fact have bias here?

T: It's hard to speculate. Quite clearly, if somebody had overheard a conversation where some one involved in the production had said, "the only reason we're doing this is to try to prevent President Bush from being elected, well, then that would have been a clear indication of political bias. We didn't find any such hard evidence; we did take note, as I indicated, of insensitivity to appearance of bias, but I think most of the criticism on this comes from people who have their own political biases, so I can't take it that seriously. The thing that we wanted to do in that sense, and this is important, we didn't want to make the same mistake CBS did. Having an incomplete picture and saying "well- it's got to be this.

S: Rush to any sort of judgment.

T: Right.

Missal: Let me just add one thing. There's no question this was a political story. When they did this they knew it could impact politics. The question of political bias is, is it written for that purpose in mind, or was there was another reason. The reason, we concluded, was that they thought it was a significant and accurate story at the time. They sincerely believed that, and in fact, Mary Mapes still sincerely believes that. So that's the primary motive we saw.

T: We saw no evidence whatsoever, on the part of anyone, that they were putting on a program they knew to be false, for reasons other than they perceived as its news value.

S: Just another good scoop, like Abu Ghraib. (which Mapes broke on "60 Minutes II" in Spring 2004)

Missal: Exactly.

T: Now you can quarrel with that, a lot of people haven; but we have some misgivings about if there even was much of a story here, because most of these facts were already in the public air.

S: So this was mostly run because of the new documents.

T: The only thing the new documents were to have reported to establish was the charge that the President had ignored a direct order to take his physical. We weren't asked to judge the news value of these things, but clearly the news value of their mistakes was bigger than the news value of their story initially.

S: Ms. Mapes contacted [John F. Kerry senior campaign adviser Joe] Lockhart before this went on the air. From what you gathered, was the Kerry campaign aware of this story airing and what it would entail beyond a promo CBS had aired before the show?

T: I don't think there's any question that they knew, either from Mapes or from the buzz around that there was a CBS story coming on the President's National Guard service. How much of that was directly communicated by Mapes to Lockhart is in dispute.

S: Do you think that anybody on CBS News or anybody on any network or a channel as a whole has a political bias that's reflected in their news coverage either way, left or right?

T: That's a good question to ask. Certainly every one of us has some kind of bias; the key question is the one you asked, whether or not it's reflected in the coverage of their news programs. I don't want to tell you more than we know; we really were not engaged and didn't investigate the full news industry, nor did we go anything beyond this particular segment of this particular program, so I'm really not qualified to answer that.

S: When you ran for office in Pennsylvania, did you ever think you were being portrayed in a negative light because you're a Republican?

T: I think you would have trouble finding anyone in public life who doesn't think that at one time or another, they were on the short end of a news broadcast. The news business is intensely competitive, and any kind of bias or mistake or distortion that appears in any news organization is likely to be pounced on by their competitors, particularly the pundits, and that's what happened here. Very quickly; not the mainstream media, but the Internet bloggers picked up on this. These are people who have their own agendas, but they were quick to point out things that we later found out to be uncertainties. But the mainstream media was harsh as well, and that's what the First Amendment's about; we don't have a state-run press that has only one version; we have a lot of different views, and some of them are troublesome to those in public office.

S: How large of a role do you think those Internet bloggers played in questioning the validity of the story?

T: They gave the questions of authenticity a very high early profile. Some of those claims, it was later shown, I think, were off base, some way off base. But it didn't take very long for the mainstream media to pick up on this as well, and by and large they did a good job, they made their share of mistakes too. This isn't about mistakes; I think if it were just about mistakes it wouldn't have been an occasion for a report. What was problematic here was that the standards of fairness and accuracy, which CBS itself had established, were violated in so many ways that produced a real debacle.

S: How well did you know Dan Rather before the investigation, and do you personally think that he deserved the level of blame he got for this?

T: I'll say this. I've known Dan Rather for many, many years, our kids went to school together. I think his role in this can be compartmentalized; he was very incidentally involved in the preparation of this story, much less so than we would have thought. But I think he was a major participant in the stubborn defense of the story once it came out. As to what consequences were handed down, again, that wasn't part of our charge.

S: All in all, you feel satisfied with the work done here?

T: Yes I do. We spent many hours putting this report together, and we hope that networks can use it as a learning tool to prevent what happened at CBS from happening again. Like I said, we were faithful to what CBS asked us to do, and I think the report is a helpful tool for them to see what happened and to use our suggestions for the network, and they've been very willing to do so.

The panel's full report can be found here.

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Silver Chips Online invites you to share your thoughts about this article. Please use this forum to further discussion of the story topic and refrain from personal attacks and offensive language. SCO reserves the right to deny any comment. No comments that include hyperlinks will be posted. If you have a question for us, please include your email address or use this form.

  • Dorothy Meyers (View Email) on February 1, 2005 at 5:34 PM
    This is a pretty poor interview, especially considering Thornburgh is also a lawyer for CBS and had a huge conflict of interest in even being involved. Why no hard questions? Why were the people who could and did dispute the evidence never interviewed? Why were the computers not examined at CBS? What a joke.
  • Doug (View Email) on February 1, 2005 at 7:10 PM
    Great interview. Please note the following dictation was in error.

    Thornburgh: We began our inquiry in late September, and for 'all intensive purposes,'...should read 'all intents and purposes.'

    ...we were in New York or here in Washington, but 'by enlarge,' I would say everybody was forthcoming....should read 'by and large.'

    But it didn't take very long for the mainstream media to pick up on this as well, and 'by enlarge'...should read 'by and large.'
  • Michael Bushnell (View Email) on February 1, 2005 at 8:46 PM
    For the record: Richard Thornburgh is not, and never has been a lawyer for CBS News. That statement is out and out false, and the panel doesn't have power of subpoena to examine the CBS computers, as if that would have shed any more light on anything in any instance. And to expand on that thought, yes, CBS News hired Thornburgh, Boccardi and their team at Kirkpatrick & Lockhart Nicholson Graham, L.L.P. But the panel was independent of CBS, and the network had no say in what the panel looked at while forming their conclusion. Hardly a conflict of interest; CBS would've been paying whomever they hired if it wasn't this team.
  • well done on February 1, 2005 at 10:56 PM
    dorothy, you didnt read the right interview.

    keep it up bushnell!
  • Chris Hanson (View Email) on February 3, 2005 at 1:47 PM
    This was an excellent, highly professional interview. Chris Hanson, Ast. Prof., Philip Merrill College of Journalism, U of Md, College Park
  • Dan Bushnell (View Email) on February 3, 2005 at 9:00 PM
    good job Michael
  • Nina (View Email) on February 4, 2005 at 4:52 PM
    WOW...that was great. Good job Mike.
  • Pat Weitzel (View Email) on May 1, 2005 at 2:11 PM
    Dear Michael,

    Great article on the CBS blowup!

    As a newsfreak, I am delighted to see one of the Cherry Park "family" on the right career path.

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