CBS News, Rather say they were duped

This article was updated at 8:11 p.m.

NEW YORK — CBS News and Dan Rather said Monday that they were duped and should never have relied on documents tarnishing President Bush’s National Guard service record.

News execs both inside and outside Black Rock are saying CBS made its biggest blunder in adamantly sticking by the “60 Minutes” story for nearly two weeks, despite evidence suggesting the documents were problematic and possibly even forged.

“Now, after extensive additional interviews, I no longer have the confidence in these documents that would allow us to continue vouching for them journalistically,” Rather said in a statement. “We made a mistake in judgment, and for that I am sorry.”

In Texas over the weekend, Rather was able to persuade former National Guard officer Bill Burkett to go public and admit on camera that he misled “60 Minutes” producer Mary Mapes about the origin of the documents.

Portions of the feisty exchange between Rather and Burkett were carried on Monday’s edition of “CBS Evening News,” along with a personal apology by the anchor.

Shadowy origins

Burkett confessed he had given Mapes a false account of where the documents came from in order to keep a promise of confidentiality. (Originally, he said he got the documents from a former Guard officer.) But the new source Burkett offered up this weekend could not be verified by CBS News, resulting in a decision late Sunday night by CBS News execs to recant the story.

CBS News prexy Andrew Heyward — reiterating Rather’s words that the net erred in using the material — and CBS management is commissioning an independent investigation of the reporting process that led to the Sept. 8 “60 Minutes” broadcast. Reporters have not been named.

“We are going to wait for the report, and that will help us determine what action is appropriate,” Heyward said.

Should any heads roll, it won’t be until after such a review is completed, network execs said. Final report will be submitted to Heyward and CBS prexy Leslie Moonves, who has kept a low profile during the documents debacle.

A decade ago, former NBC News prexy Michael Gartner resigned after newsmag “Dateline” producers staged a truck exploding.

High-profile controversy comes at a delicate time for the “60 Minutes” franchise, which recently lost creator Don Hewitt to retirement. Segment aired on the Wednesday edition of “60 Minutes,” which until recently was called “60 Minutes II.”

Repercussions

Just how negatively Rather’s career will be impacted by this incident remains to be seen, but Republicans have made no secret of the fact that they want the veteran anchor to go. Some GOP members say Rather has a personal vendetta against the Bush family.

Even now, CBS News stands by the essence of the “60 Minutes” report — that Bush used his family’s clout to duck his National Guard service.

Case of the “60 Minutes” documents is the worst scandal to hit the TV news biz since CNN’s Tailwind saga.

Industryites have been mystified by CBS’ handling of the document scandal. At one point last week, Rather suggested it didn’t matter if the documents were authentic, since the underlying story was true.

One CBS news exec said there were those who wanted to admit earlier that a mistake might have been made.

“I think what we did today, we should have done sooner. I think saying we’re 100% right and not listening to other people is what pisses people off. I’m embarrassed that we got something wrong, yes, but we’re only human,” this exec said.

Partisan finger-pointing

Republicans have labeled Burkett an out-and-out Democratic operative, pointing to an August email in which Burkett told Texas Democrats that he had successfully contacted Sen. John Kerry’s presidential campaign with potentially damaging information about Bush’s service record. (On the other hand, some Democrats believe the entire episode may have been masterminded by Republicans and orchestrated to misfire, so as to discredit the Kerry camp and in the process CBS.)

White House communications director Dan Bartlett said while CBS’ statement is “a first step,” there were still many questions to be answered, such as the true origin of the documents.

Simultaneously, White House press secretary Scott McClellan said CBS News shouldn’t have used a source who had already been discredited.

Heyward said probably no one will ever be able to prove whether the documents were authentic or forged.

“There is no evidence that it is trickery. I don’t know what to make of it. I have no evidence that this was a politically motivated dirty trick of some sort. Frankly, I can’t explain what it is.”

Memos aired on “60 Minutes” were purportedly written by the late Lt. Col. Jerry Killian, Bush’s former squadron commander.

Until Monday, CBS wouldn’t say who its source was, although Burkett was named as the possible supplier by other news orgs. Mapes, Rather and CBS News senior VP of primetime Betsy West returned to New York on Sunday after speaking with Burkett.

Under review

Asked about the criticism that CBS News moved too slowly in denouncing the documents, Heyward said it was a fair point, but that his division wanted the chance to do further investigating.

“Perhaps we should have reached this conclusion sooner. We really did try to get to the bottom of the unresolved questions, which not only persisted, but grew in number.”

Scandal is a tough beginning for Josh Howard, the newly installed exec producer of the Wednesday edition of “60 Minutes.”

Howard said Monday that he believes “60 Minutes” won’t be scarred.

“We’re going to press on. CBS News has a good deal of credibility, and particularly ’60 Minutes.’ I think by being honest with our viewers when we get something wrong, we develop trust.”

Howard said his producers did a tremendous amount of vetting in order to ensure the documents were authentic, including showing them to the White House’s Bartlett, who never questioned their authenticity.

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