SYRACUSE, N.Y. (NCC NEWS) – As we approach the 20th anniversary of a controversial and questionable CBS 60 Minutes investigation, a team of 22 student journalists from Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications spent 100 days examining the ethical issues raised by the September 2004 report, which dug into the military service records of former President George W. Bush.
The 30-minute podcast, “To Tell the Truth,” is the culmination of that student work.
It features the informed analysis of student journalists Jared Johnston, Zachary Goldman, Jack Oberlander and Kamryn Page, who, along with the team, studied and read a 250-page internal investigation conducted by CBS News after the story aired and released by its independent panel in January 2005.
The team also viewed an MSNBC half-hour segment that aired in late September 2004 on the program Hardball hosted by Chris Matthews and an hour-long December 2005 C-SPAN interview conducted by the Media Research Center’s Brent Bozell with the CBS News producer responsible for the story. In addition, the student journalists watched the 2015 film “Truth,” which starred Cate Blanchett and Robert Redford and was based on an account of the matter by the producer of the controversial CBS report.
The NCC News Spotlight podcast includes an in-depth interview conducted by Johnston and Goldman with ethics expert Kelly McBride, the Senior Vice President and Chair of the Craig Newmark Center for Ethics and Leadership at Poynter Institute.
Editor’s Note: The former CBS News producer Mary Mapes, who produced the 60 Minutes Wednesday report, declined to be interviewed after we reached out to her through a colleague on LinkedIn in advance of recording this podcast. Former CBS Evening News anchor Dan Rather, who was the correspondent and resigned from CBS News in early 2005, was unresponsive on his active social media accounts when we attempted to reach him through direct messages there.
On Sept. 8, 2004, less than two months before the presidential election between then-President George W. Bush and then-Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, CBS released a feature investigative piece and a deep dive into George W. Bush’s service with the Texas Air National Guard. The story became one of the most controversial broadcasts to date.
The piece covered Bush’s time in the National Guard, specifically between 1972 and 1973. It was headed by CBS News producer Mary Mapes and longtime anchor Dan Rather. The broadcast focused on the president’s National Guard records from the Vietnam War era and whether he got preferential treatment during that time. Mapes had researched Bush’s records for several years before CBS released the story, but she was previously unable to obtain official documents.
Just more than two weeks before the piece aired, Mapes obtained memos from Lt. Col. Bill Burkett. The documents pointed toward Bush’s inability to fulfill obligations in the National Guard. Mapes and CBS hired expert examiners to prove the documents were what they purported to be. Some of the examiners questioned the authenticity of the documents but did not declare that they were fake.
“They had a story with a lot of facts, and then they had a set of documents that turned out to not be factual,” said McBride, the ethics expert called on by NCC News. “You make one mistake, and all of a sudden the whole story is discredited.”
The process of obtaining, verifying and using the documents was rushed due to the hard air date and deadline for the story set by network executives. The records were received by Mapes within a week of the show airing.
“There’s definitely a lot of pressure when you are facing a deadline to get a story done,” said Jack Oberlander, a junior in Syracuse University’s Broadcast and Digital Journalism program.
The time crunch caused Mapes and Rather to skip certain steps in the process. Multiple original examiners recommended a highly regarded expert to look over the documents before the piece aired. CBS attempted to reach the expert but found itself with not enough time to fully utilize the person.
“I think we did make mistakes,” Mapes said in an interview in 2015 with the New York Times series, NY Times Talks. “I do think we had to rush to get it on the air. … We had the choice of putting it on in five days or never mentioning it.”
Rather contended in 2015 — more than ten years after the original story aired — that perfection is not attainable in all reporting.
“If the test is that you don’t run the story until you make no mistakes and do it perfectly, then very little quality journalism would be done,” Rather said in the same NY Times Talks interview. “The fact that we made mistakes and didn’t do things perfectly shouldn’t have skewed the fact that we reported the truth.”
One of those mistakes came when dealing with the documents provided by their source, Burkett. According to Burkett, the papers provided were copies of the original documents. The records were used to strengthen CBS’ already existing research regarding Bush’s service. Although they added original context, McBride didn’t necessarily believe that CBS needed to rely on them to produce the investigation.
“They needed to ask themselves: ‘Without these documents, what story do we have? Do we still have a story?’” McBride said. “I think if they had done that they would have been comfortable saying ‘Oh, we don’t even need these documents.’”
Once the public and media became skeptical about the legitimacy of the records, mass backlash was aimed at Mapes and Rather. CBS’ reaction to that backlash didn’t do them any favors. This was covered extensively in the CBS News internal investigation after the original report aired.
“They were adamant that the documents were real and that there were no faults in them,” Syracuse University student journalist Kamryn Page said. “In the panel report, it was calling them out for not coming clean and more so just defending their statement and not really taking an effort to look deeper into the documents.”
CBS’ appointed review panel found many failures within the production of the piece about Bush. These include the failure to get full authentication of any of the documents, failure to secure certain interviews and multiple misleading points within the story.
Mapes and Rather specifically took fire for their decisions, and CBS soon created that review panel to dissect the situation. After the independent team did an in-house investigation, Mapes was terminated. Rather stepped down from his position less than three months later.
“I think that was appropriate,” McBride said. “That was proper accountability. You cannot let something like that go without someone being fired. It is an egregious error.”