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Eye for an Eye

Four gone in wake of CBS' '60 Minutes' probe

Download a pdf file (687k) of the consultants’ report here.

NEW YORK — CBS attempted to bury the “Memogate” scandal on Monday with a flurry of firings, a 224-page consultants’ report and a new bureaucracy designed to police the Tiffany Network on future politically charged stories.

CBS fired Mary Mapes for her role in reporting a story about President Bush’s National Guard record and for misleading investigators as they attempted to verify problematic parts of her work.

The Eye also asked for the resignations of Betsy West, senior vice president of primetime; Josh Howard, executive producer of “60 Minutes Wednesday”; and Howard’s deputy, senior broadcast producer Mary Murphy.

But in a move that caught some observers by surprise, CBS News prexy Andrew Heyward was allowed to keep his job and indeed received a ringing endorsement from Viacom co-prexy Leslie Moonves.

“Heyward is an executive of integrity and talent, and the right person to be leading CBS News during this challenging time,” he said.

NBC News prexy Michael Gartner resigned a decade ago after newsmag “Dateline” producers staged a truck exploding, but the report spared Heyward because he had specifically warned Howard and West they would have to defend “every syllable” of the segment and not to let an overeager production team “stampede us.”

CBS News anchor Dan Rather, the correspondent on the report, was also spared harsh criticism in the report, which noted he was “pushed to the limit” the week the report aired, anchoring the 2004 Republican Convention and covering Hurricane Frances in Florida.

Rather never watched the broadcast before it aired.

“Dan Rather has already apologized for the segment and taken personal responsibility for his part in the broadcast,” Moonves said. “After examining the report and thinking about its implications, we believe punitive action would be neither fair nor just.”

No replacement was named for Rather, who is stepping down as “Evening News” anchor in March, and Moonves said, “We’re not close to making that announcement.”

The “Evening News” remains a distant third in the ratings to evening newscasts on NBC and ABC.

The report, written by former U.S. attorney general Dick Thornburgh and former Associated Press chairman and CEO Louis Boccardi, found that CBS News staffers failed to do the legwork to verify the documents before broadcast and then “stridently” defended it against challenges in a public relations campaign that covered up their own growing doubts about the story.

Boccardi, Thornburgh and a legal staff spent more than three months interviewing 66 people, including 32 CBS News employees.

The result is a detailed play-by-play, reminiscent at moments of the 9/11 Commission Report, which traces the path of the story until it aired on Sept. 8, through the nearly two weeks of damage control that followed, until the Sept. 20 apology when both Rather and Heyward acknowledged that the documents could not be authenticated.

In his response, Moonves pledged to follow a raft of recommendations, including the creation of a new “senior standards and practices position” reporting to Heyward. The person who fills the post will field internal complaints anonymously and have the power to veto stories.

The new position is accompanied by new rules stating that future complaints about stories should be investigated by a team of journalists not involved in the original story and that the same standards of truth for broadcast reports should be applied to CBS’ PR.

“The only way Heyward and Rather got to keep their jobs is if outsiders allow them to do so,” broadcast analyst Andrew Tyndall said. “CBS News did not have to hire a high-priced inside-the-Beltway law firm to conclude that fundamental journalistic principles were violated.”

But some defended the outside panel as a necessity given the political climate.

“Because of the way the story broke in the general public and all the credibility at stake, if they did everything on their own, people would just think they were finding scapegoats,” said Gene Jankowski, CBS Broadcasting chairman from 1977-89 and principal at investment bank Veronis Suhler Stevenson.

In an interview, Boccardi said Rather and Mapes both continue to believe that the content of the documents is true, even if the documents themselves are forgeries.

This is sure to further enflame conservatives who continue to blast the network for not withdrawing the story completely.

“CBS failed to uphold its most basic responsibility to its viewers when it aired a false and scurrilous story that deceived the American people and impugned their president,” House Majority Whip Roy Blunt of Missouri said. “Now it is time for CBS to take the responsible step and formally retract the story.”

(William Triplett in Washington, D.C., contributed to this report.)