CBS Probe Leaves Unanswered Questions

Monday, January 10th 2005, 10:17 am
By: News On 6

NEW YORK (AP) _ CBS hoped that the release of an independent probe of its ill-fated story on President Bush's military service, painful as it was, would at least lift the cloud over its news division. If only it were that simple. The report, and the network's response to it, left some questions unresolved:

_ How does CBS News President Andrew Heyward effectively lead when there's widespread surprise _ including, undoubtedly, in his own shop _ at how he kept his job when four others were fired for their roles in the news organization's worst embarrassment in years?

_ Can the news division change a culture that contributed to the sad comedy of errors without risking the journalism that made it great?

_ After a panel with a Republican former attorney general said it couldn't prove political bias and conservatives roundly rejected that, can peace ever break out between the network and its outside critics?

The top executive overseeing CBS prime-time news programs, the executive producer of ``60 Minutes Wednesday,'' his deputy and the story's producer were all fired last week after Richard Thornburgh and retired Associated Press chief executive Louis D. Boccardi's investigation. They determined that the show rushed an explosive story it couldn't prove onto the air and blindly defended it when the holes became apparent.

Count Deborah Potter, a former CBS News correspondent and now executive director of the TV news think tank Newslab, among those surprised that Heyward also wasn't asked to leave.

``This may ultimately be a stay of execution, but we won't know that for awhile,'' she said.

CBS Chairman Leslie Moonves concluded Heyward gave the right warnings and issued the right orders, but his staff didn't carry them out.

``If they fall down on the job, he shouldn't be held responsible,'' said Gene Jankowski, former CBS Broadcasting chairman and now an investment banker for Veronis Suhler Stevenson. ``They should be held responsible.''

Others say that's hardly a classic ``the buck stops here'' attitude. The story's producer, Mary Mapes, said Heyward saw and approved the story before it went on the air. The CBS News boss ultimately presided over the disastrous 12-day defense before Dan Rather's begrudging apology.

But Heyward serves a constituency of one: Moonves. And he didn't want to leave CBS News rudderless when it faces its biggest decision in many years _ the replacement for Rather when he steps down in March.

Moonves talked about a culture change within CBS News.

``I think there were certain problems with the process where possibly star producers are given too much latitude,'' he said.

CBS, particularly ``60 Minutes,'' is known for having strong, even star, producers. (Al Pacino portrayed one _ Lowell Bergman _ in the movie ``The Insider.'') As the producer largely responsible for uncovering photos of Abu Ghraib prison, Mapes fit the definition.

At ``60 Minutes,'' producers and correspondents have enormous freedom between when a story idea is approved and when it is finished, said David Blum, author of ``Tick ... Tick ... Tick ... The Long Life and Turbulent Times of 60 Minutes.''

``In the short run, this puts the fear of God into everybody, and there's a slight chill that takes place,'' Blum said.

He wonders how, practically, CBS can accomplish the goal of more oversight with less management in place. Now that ``60 Minutes Wednesday'' executive producer Josh Howard has been fired, ``60 Minutes'' leader Jeff Fager is overseeing both broadcasts.

It's also a culture that has made ``60 Minutes'' a talent magnet, produced nearly four decades of impressive journalism and kept it the gold standard of TV newsmagazines.

Is changing it worth the risk?

Linda Mason, the longtime CBS News executive who Moonves tapped for the new job of overseeing investigative reporting, said she's already heard from a former ``60 Minutes'' producer who said he would have felt more freedom, not less, with someone else examining his work.

Given the cottage industry of critics who have watched the network's every word for partisan nuance, CBS was most heartened by the panel's conclusion that the report wasn't driven by political bias. Mapes was scolded, however, for inappropriately putting one of her sources in touch with the Kerry campaign.

``When Richard Thornburgh, one of the panelists, was all over the media saying they could not prove political bias, I don't think it comes with much more authority,'' Mason said.

Still, Tim Graham, director of media analysis for the Media Research Center, accused Thornburgh of ``pussyfooting'' around the issue.

``Conservatives feel this story wasn't about beating NBC, ABC or USA Today; it was about beating President Bush,'' Graham said.

``What sort of sticks in our nostrils is they don't care what we think,'' Graham said. ``They don't care if there's a perception of bias.''

Yet when asked what CBS could do toward reaching some sort of detente, Graham said, ``I think it would be a step forward to admit that what CBS did was intended to sway an election.''

Said Mason: ``I think we're going to have to agree to disagree.''