“Karl Rove started talking to me again,” John Roberts, CBS News’ White House correspondent, said of President Bush’s chief political advisor and deputy chief of staff for policy at the White House.
That was fast.
Dan Rather left the CBS Evening News March 10, and now that the White House has gotten what it wanted, history has started over. Kind of.
“I think there’s a sense of wiping the slate clean with the White House and we’re starting at square one,” Mr. Roberts said, adding that it was “no secret” that the Bush family hadn’t liked Mr. Rather. And the memo scandal had further hurt CBS News’ access to the White House.
It was confirmed by the Bush crew.
“With the departure of Dan Rather, this is a good opportunity for CBS to reach out,” said Ari Fleischer, the former White House press spokesman. “This is almost a curtains-up for CBS to improve relationships.”
Mr. Fleischer-the former Presidential press secretary who has published his Bush explication memoir, Taking Heat: The President, the Press, and My Years in the White House-was considering CBS News now that Mr. Rather, the bête noir of the conservative class, has departed the CBS Evening News.
Mr. Rather’s early retirement was good, Mr. Fleischer said.
But it wasn’t quite enough.
“Dan Rather became a symbol,” said Mr. Fleischer, who remains close to President Bush. “That’s why this is a new opportunity for CBS. But there’s a lot more to it besides who was in the anchor chair. There’s CBS as a larger organization. There is still largely a Democratic tilt that goes in their journalism.”
Dan Rather was a good start. But the White House wanted more. “A new chapter has opened up at CBS,” Mr. Fleischer said on March 22, “but we don’t know what’s in it yet.”
The day Mr. Fleischer spoke, it appeared that CBS News had finally cleaned house after the six-month public ordeal surrounding the flawed 60 Minutes Wednesday report on George W. Bush’s Texas Air National Guard story. The program’s executive producer, Josh Howard, finally resigned Tuesday, after an 11-week holdout; Mary Mapes, the ousted producer accused of having “myopic zeal,” sold her side of the story to St. Martin’s Press for a lot of money; Mr. Rather remained on vacation in Texas for two weeks.
But the question of whether the network’s public floggings and displays of humility-from the panel report to the staff purge to the early retirement of Mr. Rather-had aided in re-establishing its relationship with the White House remained open.
The answer depended on whom you asked: the White House and its allies, or CBS News.
“Relations were really, really horrible during that whole thing, and then the White House took a different view when Dan stepped down,” Mr. Roberts said. “Everything was affected by the tenure of the guy at the head of the Evening News. It’s really subsided.”
In contrast, Mr. Roberts said, he and Bob Schieffer, the 67-year-old Texan and Face the Nation host who is temporarily replacing Mr. Rather as evening anchor, are held in higher esteem by White House officials.
“Now, don’t get me wrong,” he added. The White House was “still good at controlling information. They’re never happy to see you, but they’re less not happy to see you.”
But at the White House, there was a different view of the CBS News–reborn theory.
Adam Levine, who was the assistant White House secretary in charge of television news until January 2004-and who, like Mr. Fleischer, remains close to the Bush administration press office-said CBS News still had “a lot of work to do.”
To measure the relative credibility of news networks with press officials at the White House, Mr. Levine suggested a scale of one to 100: he put Fox News at 90, NBC News at 80 and CBS News at “about 10.”
Asked about that assessment, a current White House official, who declined to be named, said that figure was “probably generous given what happened.”
“It depends on where they go from here,” said the official. “Contrition is always nice, but it all depends on what gets on the air. That’s the true test.”
“Bowing and scraping is not going to please this White House,” said Mr. Levine.
“Results are going to please the White House.”
“There’s nothing wrong with being optimistic,” he said, referring to Mr. Roberts’ comments, but “I don’t think removing Dan Rather from the equation-that doesn’t make CBS on par with Fox.”
Mr. Fleischer said that while Mr. Rather’s departure was a good thing, he was still a little disappointed that the independent panel headed by former Attorney General Richard Thornburgh and onetime Associated Press chief Louis Boccardi Jr. could not conclude whether there was political bias at CBS News.
“It is a step in the right direction, it’s to their credit that they did it,” he said, “but they didn’t explain as fully as they could have, the question of whether there was political motivation. They punted on that question.”
Asked if he believed Ms. Mapes and Mr. Rather were politically motivated in pursuing the story, Mr. Fleischer said, “I’ll leave it as I said it. They punted on that one.”
“The ‘Memogate’ story really caused a lot of damage,” said Mr. Fleischer. “How can you blame the President with a bogus document about his life?”
Mr. Roberts acknowledged the 60 Minutes franchise still hadn’t healed all wounds with the Bush administration.
“I think they still have some issues with 60 Minutes,” said Mr. Roberts. “It wasn’t just the ‘Memogate’ thing, it was the Richard Clarke thing, the Paul O’Neill thing.” He was referring to the interviews with former Bush administration officials in the spring of 2004 that rocked the White House with revelations about Iraq war planning.
Jeff Fager, now the executive producer of both 60 Minutes and 60 Minutes Wednesday-and who was not the head of the flagship program when those segments aired-declined to comment for the record.
But the 60 Minutes Wednesday producers associated with memogate were now mostly gone. Former executive producer Josh Howard finally acquiesced on March 22, leaving quietly for an undisclosed sum. After the independent panel report on the flawed segment was made public on Jan. 10, Mr. Howard initially demanded that statements made by CBS president Leslie Moonves-that Mr. Howard had tarnished the network’s reputation-be retracted. He also asked that CBS correct the public record about his responsibility, especially in the aftermath of the segment’s airing on Sept. 8.
None of those demands were met. Instead, CBS News issued a statement saying Mr. Howard had served with “distinction” in his 23-year career, which wasn’t exactly a statement saying they’d maligned the producer. In the settlement, Mr. Howard agreed not to discuss the affair with the press.
Just days before, producer Mary Mapes sold a book for a high six-figure sum that promised to tell the story that CBS “was hoping that you would never have a chance to read,” according to the book proposal, tentatively titled The Other Side of the Story.
According to Ms. Mapes, the network had offered her a “six-figure” sum to negotiate a nondisclosure agreement, but “I quickly realized I just couldn’t make that kind of deal,” she wrote.
CBS denied that. “Absolutely no offer was ever made to Mary Mapes in regards to her termination from CBS,” said a CBS News spokeswoman. “Period.”
Inside CBS News, there was concern among some producers that the program would be trigger-shy about doing stories on the Bush administration. David Gelber, the 60 Minutes producer who worked with correspondent Ed Bradley on the spiked segment about the Bush administration’s case for war in Iraq, was one of them. He was adamant that the newsmagazine could not lose heart when doing hard-hitting stories on any political party.
“The minute 60 Minutes starts caving into political pressure from the right or the left, it will start losing its reason for being as well as its core audience,” he said. “I’ve known Jeff Fager for a long time and I’m absolutely certainly he’ll do everything he can to keep that from happening.”
In any case, at least one 60 Minutes employee was still in good stead with the White House: Scott Pelley, the silver-haired newsmagazine correspondent and a dark horse candidate to replace Mr. Rather as anchor of the CBS Evening News.
Mr. Levine said Mr. Pelley had remained well-liked, especially given his longtime friendship with Karen P. Hughes, who was recently named Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy in the White House. Since 2000, Mr. Pelley has had three sit-down interviews with the President; by contrast, Mr. Rather has had none.
“It’s human nature that if someone was unfair or biased, they wouldn’t get access to the President,” said Mr. Fleischer.
But even Mr. Pelley had challenges with access that were beyond his control. The calculus for the White House in granting interviews, said Mr. Levine, was more than just the fairness and balance of the network-it was a combination of “reach, fairness and enjoyability.”
He described the latter as “the respect factor,” in which an interviewer showed due deference to the office of the Presidency, thereby making it a more appealing experience for Mr. Bush.
By this calculation, Mr. Schieffer, the CBS Evening News interim anchor, had “the respect factor” going for him, said Mr. Levine.
“I found him to be very gracious,” said Mr. Fleischer. “The only thing was he seems to really dislike Tom DeLay. I think a lot of reporters do. I always had good workings with Bob Schieffer. I thought he gave issues a fair ear.”
What Mr. Schieffer and Mr. Pelley lacked was “reach,” said Mr. Levine, which meant the network had much less to offer the White House in terms of audience-unlike, say, ABC News, which Mr. Levine assessed as having more on-air real estate for White House officials to send their messages than CBS News, not to mention an esteemed political web site, The Note.
He recalled that when Mr. Pelley interviewed the President for two hours shortly after Sept. 11, the resulting segment was only 13 minutes long. Mr. Levine had arranged that interview, he said, but he might advise the President against it now. “If I’m advising him,” he said, “I’m not sure that’s the best use of the President’s time.”
Mr. Levine said that during his tenure, “NBC was a much more effective tool for us.” He said press officials in the White House liked Meet the Press host Russert, but not because he tossed softball questions
“Nobody is going to tell you that Tim Russert is easiest,” said Mr. Levine. “He’s by far and away the toughest. But he’s fair.”
Mr. Levine declined to comment on the present standing of Mr. Roberts, as did the White House source. But Mr. Fleischer commented: “John is feisty. John is smart. And I had a good relationship with John.”
During the scandal over the suspicious National Guard memos, Mr. Roberts was eager to distance himself from his role in the segment. On the morning of Sept. 8, he had been the one to confront press secretary Dan Bartlett with the documents purportedly written by Mr. Bush’s squadron commander, Lt. Col. Jerry Killian, which cast a negative light on Mr. Bush’s service.
In the panel report, Mr. Roberts was quick to point out that had he known that former National Guardsman Bill Burkett was the source of the documents, he would have advised against using them. Mr. Roberts had interviewed Mr. Burkett for an earlier story about Mr. Bush’s service.
Luckily for him, Mr. Roberts is not mentioned in a 24-person “Cast of Characters” listed in Ms. Mapes’ book proposal, which lists Mr. Rather and Mr. Bush as characters No. 1 and 2.
In her proposal, Ms. Mapes accuses CBS of placating the White House by squeezing her longtime friend Mr. Rather from his job. “No one can doubt that the network’s callous treatment of Dan Rather, a longtime lightning rod for the right, was well received at the White House,” she writes, adding later: “He was too willing to take risks with his reporting and, most of all, he was too unpopular at this White House.”
Among the thrusts of Ms. Mapes’ book is an argument that “journalists should not allow themselves to be leashed and led around the way we have for the past few years.”
But whether Ms. Mapes’ arguments hold sway with anyone will depend largely on her arguments for the authenticity of the documents that most now consider between murky and bunk. In her proposal, she writes that she does not “believe that the new Bush documents used in my stories were forged. I do not believe they were planted by Karl Rove.”
“Most importantly, I do not believe George W. Bush fulfilled his military commitments,” she adds.
She concludes her proposal by asking: “Mr. President, just where were you in 1972?”
[CORRECTIONS: The original posting of this article stated that Scott Pelley and Karen P. Hughes both worked at CBS affiliate KXAS-TV in Dallas. Mr. Pelley did not work there; it is presently an NBC affiliate. The piece also incorrectly stated that Adam Levine arranged President Bush’s Feb. 2004 interview with Tim Russert. He did not; it was another White House press official.]