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Will investigation help improve CBS?

When CNN aired an unsubstantiated story six years ago on U.S. military misconduct during the Vietnam War, chief executive Tom Johnson apologized, appointed an independent panel to investigate, fired two producers and correspondent Peter Arnett _ and twice offered to resign.

When NBC's Dateline staged a fiery truck crash in 1993, the network apologized, appointed an independent panel, fired three producers and ousted news division president Michael Gartner.

"You have to take swift and decisive action," NBC News president Neal Shapiro, who took over Dateline after the debacle, said Tuesday. "You have to have significant reform come out of it. We changed the personnel and the process."

The question for CBS is whether an outside investigation will help the network repair its tattered reputation after its story charging that President Bush received favorable treatment in the National Guard _ and whether high-level heads will roll.

CBS "clearly will benefit from such an independent review," said Johnson, who has retired from CNN. But he said the network had waited too long after the Sept. 8 story: "By prolonging it and trying to investigate themselves, it created unnecessary criticism of CBS."

The outside investigation has become a ritual of the media business after a big, full-blown, embarrassing blunder. CBS had resisted such a move for nearly two weeks until Dan Rather apologized Monday for reporting the 60 Minutes segment on Bush based on documents the network admits it cannot authenticate.

CBS News president Andrew Heyward said Monday that he hopes the panel, which he has not named, will report in "weeks, not months" and that he is "open to any recommendations. . . . When mistakes are made, the healthy thing for news organizations to do is to analyze why."

The most vulnerable employee at CBS would seem to be Rather's producer, Mary Mapes, who not only obtained the discredited documents but put her source, former National Guardsman Bill Burkett, in touch with Joe Lockhart, senior adviser to John Kerry's presidential campaign. But it remains unclear whether senior executives from Heyward on down, who approved the story, could be in jeopardy, and how the network will deal with some critics' calls to oust Rather, whose contract has two more years.

Bob Zelnick, a former ABC correspondent who chairs Boston University's journalism department, faulted CBS's apology, saying: "There's one word I haven't heard so far: retraction. They've yielded inch by inch on the authenticity of the documents and the reliability of the source, but without the documents there was no story." Until CBS retracts the story and apologizes directly to Bush, "it mitigates the potential beneficial effect of an independent board."

The risk in seeking an aggressive outside probe _ the only kind likely to have public credibility _ is that the findings can sting. USA Today, after a weeklong silence, named an outside panel to investigate what turned out to be a series of fabricated stories by star correspondent Jack Kelley. The panel, headed by founding editor John Seigenthaler, said the paper ignored numerous warnings and a "virus of fear" deterred many staffers from reporting problems with Kelley's work. Editor Karen Jurgensen resigned, as did her managing editor, and the executive editor was reassigned.

USA Today is facing new questions after acknowledging Tuesday that its reporters had obtained the disputed Guard memos from Burkett, right after the 60 Minutes broadcast. The paper said Burkett has admitted he lied to USA Today, as well as CBS, about where he got the documents and it is identifying him because he agreed to an on-the-record interview.

Executive editor John Hillkirk said USA Today would not have published the documents without the 60 Minutes story, at least not without further checking.