A News Story Gone Wrong: Fallout From the Forgery Flap

In one of the curious accidents of recent history, Mary Mapes’ book about losing her job at CBS hit the shelves on Nov. 8—the morning before Judith Miller lost her job at The New York Times. It was a sad couple of days for journalism—we’ve had a tough run lately—but a great moment for anyone hooked on Bush administration scandals, and a godsend for readers who can’t wait a whole year for a book written by a discredited female journalist.

The book we can buy today is called Truth and Duty: The Press, the President, and the Privilege of Power, and though she hasn’t said anything publicly, Ms. Miller is probably a little peeved that Ms. Mapes has grabbed that title.

Truth and Duty tells the story of a flawed 60 Minutes II report on President George W. Bush’s National Guard service record. Ms. Mapes spent five years chasing down tips for the piece, which aired on Sept. 8, 2004, and claimed—on the basis of previously unseen documents and unaired interviews—that the President was somewhat less than exemplary in his service to this country during the Vietnam War.

Within 24 hours, typography experts had materialized all over the right-wing blogosphere; they insisted that the documents were bogus. The mainstream media ran with the story about the forgery instead of the story about the President’s spotty record, and, in Ms. Mapes considered opinion, vindictively tore her limb from limb. Mr. Bush won re-election; Ms. Mapes got fired. After a lengthy investigation, a CBS-appointed independent panel found that she and her colleagues had rushed an insufficiently reported story to air. Three others lost their jobs as well, and Dan Rather, who delivered the report, had to give up his anchor chair on the CBS Evening News.

For all its titular grandiosity, Truth and Duty is a plainspoken, occasionally self-righteous and oftentimes sympathetic look at how the National Guard story came to be and why it fell apart. Having suffered through a year of silence—first imposed by the strictures of a CBS gag order, then by those of a $250,000 book deal—Ms. Mapes has come out swinging: at the trigger-happy right-wing bloggers who savaged her; at the cowardly CBS and Viacom executives who didn’t protect her; at the fellow journalists who seemed to delight in her misery; at the cantankerous Guardsmen who lied to her; and at the Bush administration strategists who somehow destroyed her reputation.

The whole mess started, Ms. Mapes writes, when George W. Bush was still governor of Texas. In 1999, it became clear that he was planning to run for President, and she became interested in his military record, which raised questions about how he got into—and out of—the selective Texas Air National Guard. She revisited the story off and on during the first Bush administration but made little headway until Sept. 2, 2004, when Bill Burkett, a former Texas National Guardsman and a known anti-Bush partisan, met her outside a Whataburger in Clyde, Tex., and, over pizza at a nearby restaurant, handed her the mother lode: documents purportedly written by Lt. Col. Jerry B. Killian, Mr. Bush’s commanding officer, detailing the future President’s poor performance and suspending him for failing to take a physical exam.

Jackpot! Only, not so much. In her zeal to convince Mr. Burkett to hand over the memos, which were photocopies, Ms. Mapes was careful not to ask about the originals, lest she upset him. Eventually, she nagged him about the provenance of the documents (the sequence of events is fudged in the telling), and he told her he got the documents from another former National Guardsman, George Conn. (Mr. Burkett was lying.) Ms. Mapes made a few inconclusive calls to Mr. Conn while crashing the story for the Sept. 8 show, but was content to have the photocopies authenticated by typography experts and their substance corroborated by others who knew Mr. Bush in the National Guard.

It’s at this point (and elsewhere, too) that the reader will be tempted to close Truth and Duty and whack it against his forehead. Why would Ms. Mapes, an experienced journalist who’d been through war zones, won a Peabody and—just months earlier—broken the Abu Ghraib prison abuse story, not insist on finding out where the documents came from? Why wasn’t she suspicious when Mr. Burkett, so reluctant to give her the first two memos, called up researcher Mike Smith days later and offered him four more? Why on earth would she put Mr. Burkett in touch with the Kerry campaign as a thank-you for his help? Why is she so loyal to Mr. Rather, especially after he apologized for the segment and let her hang? And why does she gloss over these details as if they were tangential?

Ms. Mapes doesn’t share Mr. Rather’s gift for metaphor. (Before the story broke, she writes, “you could have put everything I knew about document analysis and authentication on the head of a pin and still had room for the state of Texas.” Huh?) But when it comes to basic journalistic maxims—modesty, curiosity, hard work—she and her former boss are a lot alike. On the whole, Ms. Mapes and the CBS team that assembled the National Guard story seem to have been well-intentioned. So how did a flawed report get on the air? The failures were incremental; the time pressures were intense; the executives were unusually aloof; Mr. Rather was exhausted from covering a hurricane—and Ms. Mapes and her fellow producers cut a corner or two.

When it aired, the National Guard segment included an interview with former Texas Lieutenant Governor Ben Barnes, a Democrat, who talked about how he had helped get young George into the Texas Air National Guard. Also in the original segment script, according to Ms. Mapes, was analysis from Marcel Matley, a document expert who explained why he thought the photocopies were authentic—but that part was cut for time.

Ms. Mapes still hasn’t given up: In an attempt to prove that the documents were not forged—and that her report was solid—she marshals many complicated details about superscript type and proportional spacing. But mostly she relies on her portrait of a ragtag band of do-gooders pitted against the twin evils of political operatives and media conglomerates. Ms. Mapes herself is a “wan little character, abandoned by her bosses, battered by bloggers, and beaten up by Rush Limbaugh.” Her lawyer, a large man named Dick Hibey, “looks like a six-year-old boy when he smiles.” Mr. Rather, removing his make-up, was “like a little boy tearing off his tight and uncomfortable Sunday clothes”—he was “the heart of our little club.” These happy few had to defend themselves against CBS News president Andrew Heyward (who’s since been pushed out of his job), CBS chairman Les Moonves, Viacom chairman Sumner Redstone and a vast network of right-wing activists.

Ms. Mapes can’t help herself from occasionally addressing these villains directly. As the story is breaking apart around them, she describes Mr. Heyward yelling into a conference call about what they would do if “someone fucked this up.” She writes: “That was helpful, Andrew, a real rallying of the troops. Nothing like a vote of no confidence to help build your stamina for a long campaign.”

I think I can already hear the sound of Truth and Duty smacked against foreheads all over town. But Ms. Mapes, who’s been bludgeoned and scapegoated without having her say, clearly sees her book as a pebble aimed at Goliath’s brow.

Rebecca Dana is a reporter at The Observer.

A News Story Gone Wrong: Fallout From the Forgery Flap