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CBS appoints two-person panel to investigate Bush Guard story

Thursday, September 23, 2004

NEW YORK -- CBS News appointed a former Republican Cabinet member and a retired news executive Wednesday to investigate its discredited "60 Minutes" report on President Bush's National Guard service.

Dick Thornburgh, attorney general in the Reagan and first Bush administrations and former Pennsylvania governor, will start work immediately with Louis D. Boccardi, who retired last year as president and chief executive officer of The Associated Press.

The network hasn't set a deadline on their work, although CBS News president Andrew Heyward has said he hoped for answers in weeks, rather than months.

Their appointment came two days after CBS News said it could not authenticate documents used in the Sept. 8 story that had questioned the president's military service and apologized for airing it.

"It would be unfair to single out what I think are the biggest problems," Boccardi said. "We are going to look and see what they are. What CBS itself has said adds up to a significant number of problems on the way in."

It's Boccardi's second such job since retirement; he served on the panel appointed by The New York Times to probe how former reporter Jayson Blair fabricated sources and got them into the paper.

The appointment of a prominent Republican is a recognition of how the media scandal has political overtones. GOP critics considered the story an example of anti-Republican bias and CBS reprimanded the story's producer for fulfilling a source's request and setting up a contact with Democrat John Kerry's presidential campaign.

"Investigations like this can help a news organization know who should be held accountable," said Geneva Overholser, a former Des Moines Register editor who's now at the Missouri School of Journalism.

"Regrettably, CBS took a very long time to be responsive on this," she said. "But once they decided to be responsive, they were very responsive. This is quick, decisive and substantial."

It may not satisfy critics, who have already called for anchorman Dan Rather and Heyward to step down. Heyward has said he wanted to see the panel's investigation before making any personnel decisions.

"A strong leader like Dan Rather ought to say the buck stops here and take the fall," said Michael Paranzino, a Washington government affairs consultant who set up a Web site, Boycottcbs.com, to protest CBS' planned airing of a miniseries on Ronald Reagan and has kept it running.

CBS has promised the two investigators full access and complete cooperation, and said it will make their final report public.

The CBS report cited documents purported to be from one of Bush's commanders in the Texas Air National Guard. The documents say the commander, Lt. Col. Jerry Killian, ordered Bush to take a medical exam, which he did not, and felt pressured to sugarcoat an evaluation of then 1st Lt. Bush.

CBS's source, retired Texas National Guard member Bill Burkett, told USA Today that he agreed to turn over the documents to CBS if the network would help arrange a conversation with John Kerry's campaign.

Mary Mapes, a veteran CBS News producer who did much of the work on the Bush story, passed Burkett's number to the Kerry campaign and Kerry adviser Joe Lockhart said he had spoken to Burkett briefly but did not recall speaking about the National Guard.

CBS on Tuesday said it violates news standards to be associated with any political agenda.

Many document experts believe the so-called Killian memos are fake. Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie said Wednesday he believed a crime was committed by whoever created the documents. Burkett has said he did not fake or forge the documents.

"Did this producer's own political viewpoint cloud her judgment?" Gillespie asked. "Is CBS News' decision to neither suspend nor release the producer in question a result of judgment clouded by Viacom and CBS owner Sumner Redstone's role as a Kerry fund-raiser, or Viacom President Tom Freston's public support of John Kerry for president?"

Redstone has never raised funds for Kerry, a Viacom spokeswoman said, although she wouldn't say whether he has contributed to the campaign. Viacom's corporate leaders haven't been involved in decisions about CBS News, she said.


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