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CBS calls Bush story a mistake

CBS News apologized Monday for a "mistake in judgment" in its story questioning President Bush's National Guard service, saying it was misled by the source of documents that several experts have dismissed as fakes.

The network said it would appoint an independent panel to look at its reporting about the memos. The story has mushroomed into a major media scandal, threatening the reputations of CBS News and chief anchor Dan Rather.

It also has become an issue in the presidential campaign. The White House said the affair raises questions about the connections between CBS's source, retired Texas National Guard officer Bill Burkett, and Democrat John Kerry's campaign.

Rather joined CBS News president Andrew Heyward in apologizing Monday.

"We made a mistake in judgment, and for that I am sorry," Rather said. "It was an error that was made, however, in good faith and in the spirit of trying to carry on a CBS News tradition of investigative reporting without fear or favoritism."

After the story aired Sept. 8, document experts questioned memos purportedly written by Bush's late squadron leader, Lt. Col. Jerry B. Killian, saying they appeared to have been created on a computer and not on the kind of typewriter in use during the 1970s.

CBS strongly defended its story. It wasn't until a week later _ after Killian's former secretary said she believed the memos were fake _ that the news division admitted they were questionable.

Burkett admitted this weekend to CBS he lied about obtaining the documents from another former National Guard member, the network said. CBS hasn't been able to conclusively tell how he got them, or even definitely tell whether they're fakes. But the network has given up trying to defend them.

"Based on what we now know, CBS News cannot prove that the documents are authentic, which is the only acceptable journalistic standard to justify using them in the report," Heyward said. "We should not have used them."

CBS said it approached Burkett initially about the documents. Rather said Burkett was well known in National Guard circles for several years for trying to discredit Bush's military record.

Burkett, in an interview with Rather, said he was pressured by CBS to reveal his source for the documents, and "I simply threw out a name that was basically, I guess, to get a little pressure off for the moment."

He said he didn't fake or forge any documents.

"I didn't totally mislead you," he said. "I did mislead you about one individual."

Burkett said he also insisted that CBS authenticate the documents on its own.

In the Tampa Bay area, there has been some viewer response. Sam Rosenwasser, general manager of the CBS affiliate, WTSP-Ch. 10, said, "We're getting e-mail on both sides. Some people are just saying they're disappointed in CBS, they're disappointed in Dan Rather. Others are writing to say thank you."

Many writers mentioned that they are local residents and longtime WTSP viewers. Some correspondence appears to be mass e-mailings, Rosenwasser said.

He didn't know how many e-mails the station had received about the documents. "But it's definitely not as many as we got about us not carrying the Miami football game last week."

The Miami Dolphins' Sept. 12 season opener was moved up a day because of Hurricane Ivan. That put it on a Saturday, along with many college games. "The NFL doesn't compete with college football, so the game was only offered to the home markets," Rosenwasser said.

WTSP broadcast the U.S. Open, as scheduled. "It wasn't our call. But I can't remember people being that angry about anything else."

Heyward said it was not clear if any disciplinary action would be taken against CBS News employees. Besides tainting the network's flagship broadcast, 60 Minutes, the report was a damaging blow to Rather, 72. Some suggested the scandal, along with the low ratings of the CBS Evening News, could hasten his retirement.

"Please know that nothing is more important to us than people's trust in our ability and our commitment to report fairly and truthfully," Rather said.

Alex Jones, director of Harvard University's Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, said it appeared to be an honest mistake by CBS.

Jones said questions will probably center on the story's producer, Mary Mapes. She's one of the network's top investigators.

White House press secretary Scott McClellan said the White House appreciated the expression of regret but that there were still serious questions about Burkett.

"Bill Burkett, who CBS now says is their source, in fact is not an unimpeachable source as was previously claimed," McClellan said. "Bill Burkett is a source who has been discredited and so this raises a lot of questions. There were media reports about Mr. Burkett having senior level contacts with the Kerry campaign."

The Kerry campaign has said it had nothing to do with the story.

Times staff writer Colette Bancroft contributed to this report.