On Jan. 10, 2005, CBS President Leslie Moonves sent his employees a novella-length memo with the subject line “The Independent Panel Issues its report.”
CBS had formed said independent panel months earlier, in the fall of 2004, in order to investigate the development, preparation and aftermath of Dan Rather and company’s flawed report on President Bush’s military service. The report had aired on 60 Minutes Wednesday on Sept. 8, 2004, a few months before the presidential election, and had subsequently embroiled the network in a scandal that came to be known as “Memogate.”
In his memo to the staff, Mr. Moonves summarized the findings of the 200-plus-page report, which the panel had completed five days earlier. Mr. Moonves noted that the panel had found that CBS reporters had rushed the piece about Mr. Bush’s military service onto the air. “The bottom line,” he wrote, was that much of the story had been “wrong, incomplete, or unfair.”
“I think it’s important to note, in the Panel’s own words, that ‘CBS News did not have any input or influence with respect to the findings of the Panel, other than to commit itself at the outset to make this Report public,’” Mr. Moonves wrote. “This Panel was truly independent, and remains so.”
Over the past year, as part of his $70 million lawsuit against his former employers, Dan Rather has repeatedly raised questions about the panel’s independence. During the first week of November, Mr. Rather’s legal team submitted a memorandum to the judge overseeing the case, which, in part, reiterated Mr. Rather’s allegation that the panel was little more than a PR operation for a news company more interested in protecting its reputation and currying favor with Republicans in Washington than in setting the record straight regarding President Bush’s military records.
In a response, dated Nov. 3, lawyers for CBS countered Mr. Rather’s latest criticisms of the panel. “The Panel was completely independent and conducted its investigation without the influence of CBS, as all the testimony in the case proves,” wrote lawyers for CBS.
But one set of internal CBS e-mails (which turned up in the discovery process and was recently made public) would seem to suggest that if CBS executives refrained from directly influencing the panel’s final report, they were certainly contemplating doing so on the eve of its publication.
The e-mail exchange took place between Andrew Heyward, then the president of CBS News, and Linda Mason, the CBS executive charged with acting as a liaison to the members of the panel. The date of the exchange was Dec. 17, 2004—a full 12 days before the panel would turn over its first “substantially completed draft” to certain CBS executives, including Mr. Moonves, for review prior to publication.
In the e-mail back-and-forth, Mr. Heyward and Ms. Mason appear to be engaging in a bit of preemptive damage control. “Even if they had to expand the summary, we should consider this option if the big doc is too destructive,” wrote Mr. Heyward. “[A]nd I wouldn’t hesitate to put that back on them—that they exceeded the mandate or violated our instruction to leave the organism alive after the cancer is removed.”
In a recent deposition with Mr. Rather’s lawyers (parts of which have now been made public), Mr. Heyward testified that he didn’t remember the details of the option that he and Ms. Mason were discussing in the e-mails. Nor did he recall if he had seen a draft of the panel’s report, prior to writing the e-mails. “I think Mr. Heyward is talking in general terms,” Ms. Mason testified during her deposition.
“Why are you having any conversations with Mr. Heyward at all if he was out of the loop on this one?” asked a lawyer for Mr. Rather later in the deposition.
“This isn’t about content,” said Ms. Mason. “This is about if we’re getting near the end, what are we going to do with it. Strategy.”
And so it is that CBS’s damage-control strategy concerning Mr. Rather, Mr. Bush and the Texas Air National Guard staggers forward, now entering … year five.