CBS News fighting for its reputation

Friday, September 17, 2004

By David Bauder ~ The Associated Press

NEW YORK -- CBS News is trying to restore its credibility after a week of questions about its report on President Bush's National Guard service -- yet it may never conclusively know whether it was duped by fake documents.

Meanwhile, a federal judge has ordered the Pentagon to find and make public by next week any unreleased files about Bush's service, to resolve a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed by The Associated Press. Pentagon officials said they plan to have their search complete by Monday.

The news division has acknowledged for the first time questions about the authenticity of documents used to support the story, and it has promised a stepped-up effort to get at the truth.

"They could have saved themselves a good deal of negative publicity and attacks if they had said that from the beginning," said Charlotte Grimes, a Syracuse University professor with a specialty in political reporting.

Internet watchdogs were the first to raise questions about last week's report, and CBS anchor Dan Rather's critics have been buzzing ever since.

The memos, purportedly written by Bush's late squadron commander, Lt. Col. Jerry B. Killian, indicated he had been pressured to sugar coat Bush's performance and that the future president ignored an order to take a physical. Several document experts say they look suspiciously like they were written on computer, not a 1970s-era typewriter.

CBS flew the late Killian's former secretary, Marian Carr Knox, from Texas to New York Wednesday for an interview, in which she said she believed the documents were fake but their content accurate.

While backing away slightly from the documents, CBS has always maintained -- and Rather repeated on "60 Minutes" Wednesday -- that no one has disputed the substance of the story: Bush received preferential treatment to get into the National Guard and didn't fulfill his requirements.

But CBS News president Andrew Heyward said "there obviously remain questions surrounding the documents and we're going to redouble our effort to get to the bottom of them."

The network has done little to mollify its critics.

"CBS is now clinging to a new and pathetic defense based on the opinion of an 86-year-old woman that she believes her boss believed something," said Brent Bozell, president of the conservative watchdog Media Research Center. "Sentiments about the spirit of forged documents are utterly irrelevant, but in the tradition of Bill Clinton's classic denials it all depends on what CBS's definition of 'truth' is."

CBS has refused to name its source and said the person continues to maintain the documents are real. Without someone coming forward and admitting a forgery, it may be difficult for CBS to prove it either way.

"That's a good question," Heyward said. "I think the forensics debate may not be resolved but maybe there's another way to do it. We obviously would not have gone on the air if we hadn't had a tremendous amount of confidence in the story."

CBS could be in the "damnable situation" of having promised confidentiality to a source "and yet they may have been manipulated by that very same source," Grimes said.

There have been calls for CBS to appoint an independent panel to examine its newsgathering process for the story, like CNN did when questions were raised about its Tailwind story.

"These people are very smart, talented and honest," said Richard Wald, a former ABC executive now a Columbia University professor. "But smart, talented and honest people make mistakes and get snookered like anyone else from time to time."

CBS hasn't responded to such requests, pointing only to its own reporting efforts.

With every major journalistic outlet chasing the story, that independent examination is effectively going on already, said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Public Policy Center.

If CBS did rely on false documents, it would be a major blow for Rather, 72, nearing the end of his career after nearly a quarter-century as the network's top anchor. Coupled with the distant third-place ranking of the "CBS Evening News," there's some speculation it could hasten his departure.

After a strong year for "60 Minutes" -- the same woman who produced the National Guard story also broke the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal story -- it could also raise questions about that broadcast following the exit of founder Don Hewitt.

"They've got a real problem and I think they will have to figure it out," Wald said. "There are two parts to this problem -- the truth and the perception. They have to deal with both."

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