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Crisis of credibility

The most bewildering aspect of the scandal at CBS News is its simplicity. As detailed in the 224-page independent report released Monday, if producers and executives at CBS News had followed the most basic tenets of journalism in preparing their 60 Minutes report alleging President Bush received preferential treatment in the Texas Air National Guard, the story never would have blown up in their faces (it also may never have aired). The report found "considerable and fundamental deficiencies" in the way CBS reported and edited the segment.

Now CBS is stuck in a damaging controversy that has devastated the reputation and the credibility of what was once the most-respected network news department in the country _ costing the jobs of four longtime staffers and feeding the wildest fantasies of liberal media bias.

As prepared by former Attorney General Dick Thornburgh and former Associated Press president Louis Boccardi, the report on 60 Minutes' Sept. 8 broadcast outlines an editorial process hijacked by a successful producer _ backed by a top anchor _ who pushed to get a controversial story on air, despite having only six days to authenticate the documents proving it. The report said CBS producers were driven by a "myopic zeal" to be first with the story, even though many of the allegations already had been widely reported by other news organizations.

The mistakes were numerous and basic: Memos that purportedly showed a National Guard officer's resistance to favoring Bush were never fully authenticated, and experts who raised doubts were disregarded; the former Guardsman who gave CBS producers the memos said he got them from another veteran but CBS "did virtually nothing" to speak with that person; initially, the network vouched for the middleman who provided the memos, former Guardsman Bill Burkett, despite his history as an intensely partisan Bush critic.

After the story aired, anchor Dan Rather and top news executives stubbornly defended the report for 12 days, making "virtually no attempt" to consider the growing criticisms and questions. And the story's producer, Mary Mapes, eventually admitted urging John Kerry spokesman Joe Lockhart to speak with Burkett _ a violation of objectivity that should be a firing offense on its own.

Despite its detail and the independence of its authors, the report on CBS's story places most of the blame on staffers below Rather and CBS News president Andrew Heyward, raising suspicions that the department's top names were spared to limit the damage to the network. Rather may be stepping down as anchor of the CBS Evening News in March, but he will still serve as the broadcast's managing editor and a correspondent on 60 Minutes until then.

We believe CBS should make a fresh start, limiting Rather's duties to his anchor job until his retirement. The report's proposal to establish an executive position over news standards, to whom lower-level staffers can bring ethical and professional concerns anonymously, is another good idea. Dismantling the culture of fear and competition that short-circuited traditional editing at CBS News is essential.

CBS's difficulties only prove that basic reporting standards are journalists' best defense against shoddy work and explosive scandal. That the network of legendary journalist Edward R. Murrow had to learn this lesson the hard way remains a sad disappointment.