CBS issued a damning independent review Monday of mistakes related to last fall's 60 Minutes Wednesday report on President Bush's National Guard service and fired three news executives and a producer for their "myopic zeal" in rushing it on the air.
The review said CBS compounded the damage with a circle-the-wagons mentality once the report came under fire. The independent investigators found no evidence of a political bias against Bush.
CBS News president Andrew Heyward and Dan Rather, who announced in November he was stepping down as the anchor of CBS Evening News, escaped disciplinary action. But Rather, who narrated the Sept. 8 story and subsequent followups and has long been characterized by the right as someone who periodically shades his journalism to the left, was criticized by CBS chief executive Leslie Moonves for "errors of credulity and overenthusiasm."
"The system broke down on this one, for sure," said Louis D. Boccardi, retired chief executive officer of the Associated Press, who conducted the investigation with former Republican Attorney General Dick Thornburgh. They delivered the 224-page report to Moonves last week.
Fired were Mary Mapes, the story's producer; Josh Howard, executive producer of 60 Minutes Wednesday; Howard's top deputy, Mary Murphy; and CBS News senior vice president Betsy West.
The story had questioned Bush's Vietnam War-era commitment to service in the Texas Air National Guard. Mapes began reporting the story in 1999, but the report centered on documents obtained only weeks earlier, supposedly written by Bush's commander, the late Lt. Col. Jerry Killian. The memos said that then 1st Lt. Bush did not take a mandatory medical exam and that Killian reportedly felt pressured to sugarcoat an evaluation of him.
Some document experts said it appeared the memos contained a computer character inconsistent with typewriters at the time.
Boccardi and Thornburgh found that Mapes had said the documents were authenticated, when in fact she had found only one expert to vouch for only one signature in the memo. They said she also failed to look into the background of her source, retired Texas Army National Guard Lt. Col. Bill Burkett; to find Burkett's source; or to find other corroboration of the charges.
"Her confidential source was not reliable and her authenticators were unable to authenticate the documents, and yet she maintained the opposite. This is truly disquieting," Moonves said.
Mapes said Monday she was "terribly disappointed" by the report's conclusions. She said that she believed the story was corroborated by others and consistent with previously known records, and that the panel condemned her based on statements from people who said different things to her.
Mapes said the decision to air the story when it did was made by her superiors, including Heyward.
When the Bush report aired, Mapes was a respected producer. The review concluded that her accomplishment of having produced a report last spring that showed the first pictures of Americans mistreating Iraqis in Abu Ghraib prison essentially made her bulletproof despite the delicate, complicated nature of the Bush story, and that Howard and Murphy failed to adequately question her.
Two days after the report aired, Heyward ordered West to review the opinions of document examiners and sources who had supported the story _ but no investigation took place, the investigators said.
If the review had been conducted promptly, Thornburgh and Boccardi said they did not believe CBS would have publicly and stridently defended the report for nearly two more weeks. The two men also criticized CBS for falsely saying the source of the documents was "unimpeachable" and that experts had vouched for their authenticity.
They also said it was "inappropriate" for Mapes to have helped Burkett get in contact with Joe Lockhart, a political adviser to Democrat John Kerry. But Boccardi said there was no evidence CBS was guilty of anti-Bush bias.
Scott McClellan, Bush's press secretary, said he hoped CBS would take steps to "prevent something like this from happening again."
An aide to Rather said Monday that he would have no immediate comment on the report, since he had just returned from covering the tsunami in Thailand and had not yet read it.
Staff members at 60 Minutes Wednesday said that Howard and Murphy appeared at a meeting Monday morning to thank people and say goodbye. Both were said to be stunned; they had told colleagues in recent weeks that they expected to survive. Murphy was in tears throughout the meeting. West declined to comment.
Democrats chafed at the notion that this puts to rest any question about Bush's wartime service. "I understand why the right will whip this up as a vindication, but they're just being partisan," said Joe Lockhart, a former spokesman for President Bill Clinton and for Kerry's presidential campaign.
CBS News said it has appointed one of its executives, Linda Mason, to a newly created job of senior vice president of standards and special projects, charged with thoroughly reviewing investigative stories before they air.
"It's an unprecedented moment as far as conservatives are concerned," said Republican media consultant Keith Appel, whose firm worked with the Swift boat veterans group that fought Democrat John F. Kerry's presidential candidacy. "I think it's a warning to the rest of the media."
Information from the Washington Post and New York Times was used in this report.
CBS STAFFERS BLAMED
WHAT HAPPENED: Four CBS News staffers were dismissed after an independent investigation said a "myopic zeal" led to the airing of a discredited story about President Bush's military service. CBS News president Andrew Heyward kept his job.
DROPPING ANCHOR: Dan Rather, who narrated the report but played only a limited role in assembling it, was faulted for "errors of credulity and overenthusiasm." He says an earlier decision to step down as CBS Evening News anchor in March has nothing to do with the investigation.
NO BIAS?: Investigators found no political motivation.
THE FIRED FOUR
MARY MAPES: A Dallas-based 60 Minutes producer, Mapes had worked at CBS News since 1989. She was credited with landing the first TV interviews with Strom Thurmond's biracial daughter and Hillary Rodham Clinton after her husband's impeachment. She was the producer behind the story that showed the first photos of Iraqis being mistreated at Abu Ghraib.
JOSH HOWARD: Howard had worked at CBS News since 1981. He was a producer at 60 Minutes for 14 years and was Don Hewitt's top deputy for his highly regarded final season. Howard was appointed in June as executive producer of 60 Minutes Wednesday.
MARY MURPHY: A senior broadcast producer and Howard's top deputy, she had worked at CBS News for more than 17 years and was head of the political desk covering the 2004 presidential campaign.
BETSY WEST: As a senior vice president of CBS News, she was responsible for the content of all the network's prime-time broadcasts, including both 60 Minutes editions and 48 Hours Mystery. She joined CBS News in 1998 from ABC News, where she had been executive producer of Turning Point.