Now that the mea culpas have begun and 60 Minutes has admitted it can't authenticate memos at the heart of a damaging Sept. 8 story about President Bush's National Guard service, the fallout threatens to spread beyond CBS News to much of the mainstream media. Journalists who once scoffed at allegations that some mainstream news outlets are bastions of liberal bias must now face a skeptical public following news that 60 Minutes producer Mary Mapes called a representative of Democratic challenger John Kerry's campaign to suggest he contact former National Guardsman Bill Burkett, the source of CBS News' disputed memos.
Already, CBS News has been forced to admit it did not properly authenticate documents Burkett gave them, purportedly written by a former superior of Bush's in the Guard who alleged pressure to "sugarcoat" his performance review. After weeks of insisting that criticism of its material and methods had partisan roots, anchor Dan Rather was forced to apologize Monday for airing a story that didn't pass the basics of Journalism 101.
Like past scandals involving the New York Times and USA Today, CBS's "Memogate" exposes a mainstream, well-regarded news operation that abandoned basic journalism practices in pursuit of a coveted scoop. Apparently certain that its story was accurate, Rather and Co. disregarded important information casting doubt on their evidence. Two document analysts questioned the validity of the memos, and Burkett, a longtime Bush critic, was a highly suspicious source.
The hidden culprit here was the use of anonymous sources. By keeping Burkett's role in the story hidden until Monday, CBS News avoided obvious questions about his motives and credibility. Burkett admitted in a CBS Evening News interview Monday that he lied to the newsmagazine about who gave him the documents.
Early reports indicate that Rather and CBS News executives placed too much faith in Mapes, a top-notch investigator behind their recent Iraq prison abuse stories. But the two-person, independent panel convened to investigate the scandal, former Pennsylvania Gov. Dick Thornburgh and retired Associated Press CEO Louis D. Boccardi, should not spare names at the top from rigorous scrutiny.
The repercussions have only begun for CBS News. 60 Minutes' first new show of the season Sunday features an interview with Fox News Channel pundit Bill O'Reilly. Can Mike Wallace ask tough questions about the right-leaning newschannel without facing allegations of Rather-influenced liberal bias?
And if CBS investigators unearth the next Abu Ghraib or Watergate, will anyone believe them?
Despite all this damage, unless the panel's investigation reveals new culpability, talk of Rather's resigning seems premature. CBS has no real successor in place, and even considering Rather's long history of erratic behavior _ including walking off the set during a broadcast and dropping oddball, Texas-born sayings into his reports _ one awful mistake should not invalidate 30-plus years of quality work. Expect less prominent names to feel the sting of the panel's investigation.
To redeem itself, CBS must explain how it aired such a flawed report, why Mapes ignored warnings from document experts, why she called the Kerry campaign at Burkett's request and _ most importantly _ whether the documents at the heart of the story are fake.
It all adds up to a painful lesson on why the journalism basics, including ethics and on-the-record sources, are so important. Without them, reporters can quickly lose their credibility and risk becoming pawns of the very sources they are supposed to cover.