More than a week after CBS News released its ostensibly final, tortured, novella-length report on the suspicious-document scandal at 60 Minutes Wednesday, some basic matters in the case are even less settled than before-starting with the fate of the four employees the network singled out for dismissal on Jan. 10.
Producer Mary Mapes, who was fired, has released a statement saying that she had done nothing wrong in preparing the Sept. 8, 2004, report or in the aftermath. And the three staffers who CBS asked to resign-executive producer Josh Howard, his top deputy Mary Murphy, and CBS News senior vice president Betsy West-have declined to actually tender their resignations.
The trio has remained silent, but all three are consulting with lawyers about the possibility of bringing legal action against CBS News.
As critics continue to question how CBS News president Andrew Heyward survived the upheaval that took out his underlings, the gaps in the official narrative of events suggest there may be one or more alternate versions of what happened.
And those who know Ms. West, Mr. Howard and Ms. Murphy said that they have an uneasy choice to make between fighting for their own professional reputations-by expanding on those missing links and possibly trying to bring top executives down with them-or peaceably drawing the best possible severance package from the company.
CBS News staffers and colleagues familiar with the grievances of both Mr. Howard and Ms. West said that the pair’s account of what happened is not merely one of gross journalistic negligence (though that was clear, in queasy detail) but of cutthroat survival by network brass.
The report by former Attorney General Richard Thornburgh and former Associated Press head Louis Boccardi Jr. does not present evidence to support the view that top executives were culpable. But it doesn’t offer the evidence to clear them, either.
In a tale populated by scoundrels, CBS News staffers were quietly heralding at least one moment of heroism in the report: Mr. Howard’s attempt, amid the clamor that followed the airing of the segment, to take a stand against stonewalling. For some, Mr. Howard was shaping up to be the Jon Landman of the CBS News scandal-a reference to the New York Times editor who had tried to sound the warning that Jayson Blair shouldn’t be writing for the paper.
“There’s only one thing that sits there on the record with someone having taken a stand,” said a CBS News staffer, “which its existence alone puts everyone else in a horrible place.”
The staffer was referring to an e-mail written by Mr. Howard to Ms. West at 4:53 a.m. on Sept. 10, two days after the segment aired. In it, Mr. Howard-a 24-year veteran of CBS who had been just six days into his job as executive producer when the segment aired-recommended that CBS News acknowledge the possibility that it had been duped.
The message was roundly ignored, and the company continued to defend the story for the next five days.
The bald facts of what 60 Minutes Wednesday did wrong are undeniable. The journalistic indiscretions include, but are not limited to, the fact that no one investigated the ultimate source of Ms. Mapes’ documents, and the decision not to confront the White House with the alleged findings until the morning of the day the segment was to air.
That latter choice showed not only hubris, but a kind of myopia that should have been flagged in the screening room-where Mr. Heyward was sitting an hour before the program aired.
So who was pushing-or encouraging-the segment to go forward? Ms. Mapes, the zealous producer, was clearly a moving force. But in the past, Mr. Heyward had been able to hold her in check. During the program’s Abu Ghraib report, also produced by Ms. Mapes and reported by anchor Dan Rather, Mr. Heyward reportedly held the story back from running for three weeks.
In the case of the Bush National Guard memos, Mr. Heyward gave tentative approval for the airing of the report the day before it was completed. And it wasn’t until that evening that CBS News first spoke to the White House-which contacted the network after hearing that a story was in the works.
According to the report, there was no actual segment to screen until 7 p.m. on Sept. 8-one hour before showtime-when Mr. Heyward saw and approved it.
In essence, the report accused Ms. Mapes of steamrolling not only her immediate supervisors-including and especially Mr. Howard-but also the president of the news organization.
Mr. Howard, after all, was only nominally in charge. His advocates concede that the executive producer made a mistake by allowing himself to be big-footed by Mr. Heyward, who assigned Ms. West to be a caretaker of the segment, reporting back to him.
In what the report noted was a highly unusual level of hands-on involvement by management, Ms. West screened two versions of the segment and was in the editing room the day it aired.
Mr. Howard’s “main sin,” said a CBS News staffer, “was he was exceedingly weak and he ceded to authority a role that has never been breached previously. No one could ever remember [current 60 Minutes executive producer] Jeff Fager or [former 60 Minutes executive producer] Don Hewitt allowing a supervisor in on their decision-making.”
But if Mr. Howard was guilty of ceding responsibility for the segment while it was being created, he could not be accused of that sin two days later, when he made the first concerted effort to begin addressing the possibility of error.
Early on Sept. 10, Mr. Howard sent Ms. West the warning e-mail, saying that he was now uncertain about the report and thought that CBS News should acknowledge the growing outside evidence.
Mr. Howard suggested that CBS News should tell the public that if indeed one or more of the documents were not authentic, it would mean that CBS News was the victim of an elaborate fraud: “We have no evidence that that was the case. But we are continuing to aggressively investigate, and should we find that anyone-the Kerry campaign, the Bush campaign, or anyone else-was responsible for circulating fraudulent documents and orchestrating a hoax, no one would be more anxious to break that story than CBS News.
“The point,” he wrote, “would be to shift the conversation from CBS did something wrong, to something wrong was done to us and we’re mad as hell.”
As the report describes, Ms. West wrote back to Mr. Howard at 8:39 a.m. with the reply: “I think we need to defend ourselves specifically [and] not even concede that we think it could be a hoax.”
On its face, it appeared Ms. West had overridden Mr. Howard in the course of events. In the narrative of the report, Ms. West is responding directly to Mr. Howard’s suggestion, on her own behalf. But in real-time, according to documents in the report’s appendix, her reply was informed by an e-mail from Mr. Heyward at 7:49 a.m., an hour and 10 minutes before she responded to Mr. Howard.
That e-mail by Mr. Heyward pushed for a stronger defense: “This is a direct attack on our credibility that will stick if we don’t come back as hard as possible-not by saying ‘we’ll investigate allegations’ (which of course we should), but by giving some indication WHY we’re so confident.”
Nowhere in the Thornburgh report does Mr. Heyward acknowledge having seen Mr. Howard’s e-mail. Had Ms. West told Mr. Heyward about the executive producer’s reservations? The question goes unanswered.
But Mr. Howard’s doubts were confirmed again later that day when, according to his testimony to the investigative panel, he spoke to a typewriting expert named Peter Tytell: “Howard told the Panel that he spoke to Tytell for about 30 minutes and found Tytell to be convincing,” the report reads. “He found the discussion to be an ‘unsettling event’ that shook his belief in the authenticity of the documents.”
This time, Mr. Howard reported his findings to both Ms. West and Mr. Heyward. At this point, one assumes, Mr. Heyward may have become familiar with Mr. Howard’s qualms.
The result? Ms. West, said the report, suggested he tell Ms. Mapes and noted that “one could always find experts willing to take different sides in the authentication debate.”
Mr. Heyward, apparently, had no reaction. That morning, the CBS News president had given a list of instructions to Ms. West to fully vet every detail of Ms. Mapes’ report-a directive, the report explains, that “was not implemented in a prompt or systematic way.”
In the report’s rendering, Ms. West didn’t fulfill her duty to vet the piece “without undercutting our people,” as Mr. Heyward requested, leading eventually to her dismissal. Whether or not she responded to the instructions-and if not, why not-is another question the report fails to answer. The investigators never explain why Mr. Heyward didn’t follow up on his memo, and Ms. West doesn’t reappear in the narrative in any significant way until three days later.
Supporters of Ms. West were naturally suspicious of a storyline that suggested Ms. West had been anything other than a managerial extension of Mr. Heyward. One of his e-mail directions to her on Sept. 10 was: “You also have to talk to Mary [Mapes] about what the Evening News does tonight.”
Yet later that afternoon, Mr. Heyward had asked corporate communications executive Gil Schwartz to orchestrate a response for the Evening News. Instead of Ms. West, it was Mr. Schwartz who ended up buttonholing Ms. Mapes about document experts.
On that day, Mr. Schwartz had made forceful demands for facts and experts supporting CBS News’ contention that the documents were authentic. In an e-mail not to Ms. West, but to Jim Murphy, the executive producer of the CBS Evening News, Mr. Schwartz wrote: “We need our expert available NOW to speak to all those who are reporting this story,” he wrote.
Where was Ms. West? In the report, it appears that Mr. Schwartz is doing her job-and by extension, Mr. Heyward’s-with Ms. West no longer visible in the narrative.
As the report lays out, what followed on the day of the Sept. 10 e-mail exchanges was not a trumpeting of new experts or new facts dug up by Ms. West. Instead of a concession to a possible hoax, as suggested by Mr. Howard, what followed was a “stubborn repetition of what [CBS News had] already said,” according to the report.
But judging by the report, it was a stubborn repetition managed without the aid of Ms. West or the executive producer of the segment, who had expressed serious doubts about the authenticity of the documents.
Despite Mr. Howard’s “unsettling moment,” the rest of CBS News did not have its wholesale “psychological breakthrough,” as Mr. Heyward described it, until the following Wednesday, Sept. 15, when Mr. Rather interviewed Marian Carr Knox, the former secretary of purported document author Lt. Col. Jerry Killian, and discovered that Ms. Knox did not recognize the documents. After Sept. 10, the report is never again clear who was responsible for the continuing strategy of defending the documents despite growing evidence against them-only the group called “management,” which apparently was at the mercy of a maverick producer, Mary Mapes, and two fumbling, uncommunicative foot soldiers, Mr. Howard and Ms. West.
By November, however, it became clear whom CBS president Leslie Moonves considered the hero in the debacle. That month, with the independent report still pending, Gil Schwartz was promoted to executive vice president, giving him consolidated control of communications at a newly formed CBS Communications Group. Mr. Moonves called him “the most gifted communicator I have ever worked with.”