A ‘Public Relations Problem’: CBS and Memogate, Revisited

“We could have fixed this and moved on,” wrote Josh Howard. “Now we’re all fucked.”
 
It was the morning of Friday, September 17, 2004 and Mr. Howard, the then-executive producer of 60 Minutes Wednesday was sitting at his computer, writing an email to his colleague Jill Landes, who was also, at the time, a producer on the CBS News show.
 
“I’m furious and devastated,” Mr. Howard continued, “and tears are streaming down my face.”
 
Nine days earlier, Mr. Howard’s program had aired a controversial story about President George W. Bush‘s military service in the Texas Air National Guard during the Vietnam War.
 
In the days since, the story had come under attack from bloggers and journalists who were questioning the authenticity of the military documents presented in the report and accusing CBS News of airing a biased story against a conservative President in the midst of a heated campaign, a few short months before the closely contested November election.
 
On that Friday morning, Mr. Howard seemingly wasn’t so much upset with the potential mistakes made in the story–those could be presumably corrected or illuminated with additional reporting. Instead, he was angry with how the CBS executives were handling the maelstrom of criticism.  
 
“I have been saying this to our management since 4:50 a.m. on Friday morning, the day after the first questions were raised,” wrote Mr. Howard. “But they insisted on treating this as a public relations problem. Not as a journalistic one.”
 
The emotional emails have recently surfaced publicly for the first time as part of new court filings in Dan Rather‘s ongoing $70 million lawsuit against his former employees.
 
Mr. Rather will be back in court on Tuesday, April 14 for yet another round of legal wrangling with lawyers from CBS.
 
In the meantime, the discovery process is ongoing, and Mr. Rather and his legal team continue to unearth interesting tidbits of confidential communications, which shed light on what went on behind the scenes at CBS during the days and months following the initial controversy.
 
In the lawsuit, Mr. Rather has alleged, in part, that (in the aftermath of the controversial story) CBS and Viacom executives were more interested in protecting CBS’ reputation and currying favor with Republicans in Washington than in setting the record straight regarding President Bush’s military records.
 
To judge by the newly public email chain between Mr. Howard and Ms. Landes, Mr. Rather was hardly the only one in the CBS newsroom who felt that network executives were more interested in launching a defensive PR campaign than in uncovering the truth.
 
A few minutes after Mr. Howard’s initial teary email, Mr. Landes responded. “Tears have been streaming down my face too,” she wrote. “They have got to understand that we have a responsibility to the public FIRST AND FOREMOST and if we fuck that over, we’re all outta here.”
 
A few months later, on March 22, 2005, under pressure from CBS News executives, Mr. Howard officially resigned.  
 
A ‘Public Relations Problem’: CBS and Memogate, Revisited