The Blog

A Cover-Up Is a Cover-Up

Like other powerful institutions confronted by scandal, CBS News is still fighting real reform. And still refusing to admit they have a problem.

11:00 PM, Jan 12, 2005 • By HUGH HEWITT
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LARGE AND POWERFUL INSTITUTIONS do not react well to internal scandal, especially when that scandal threatens to erode a central pillar of the institution's authority. The first reaction will almost inevitably be denial, followed by various efforts to isolate and minimize the scandal, to protect leadership, and then to adopt only such "reforms" as are forced upon it. Genuine accountability and reform typically only accompany a crash so spectacular that no one can persist in the cover-up.

Thus did the Roman Catholic Church in America deal with the sexual abuse scandal which developed over 30 years and broke with such fury in recent times. The capitulation of Bernard Francis Cardinal Law was the result of a years-long erosion of his and his Diocese's credibility which was prolonged and embarrassing and which was accompanied by a series of half-measures and stalls that in retrospect defy understanding. There are even now still some corners of the American Church, like the Diocese of Los Angeles, that continue to resist accountability, even while neighboring bishops, like the Bishop of Orange County California sign off on $100 million plus settlements.

A similar pattern of denial followed by painful reform is unfolding at the oil-for-food-for-dictators scandal plagued United Nations, within a CIA that failed to see 9/11 coming and which has yet to account for the missing WMD in Iraq, and even within Major League Baseball as it struggles to persuade the fans that every homerun record of recent years shouldn't have a steroid-induced asterisk next to it. In each case, a large and powerful institution fought, through various ruses and tricks, to preserve a crucial reputation. For the Church, it was the character of the priesthood. For the United Nations, it is the claim to high-minded purpose. For the CIA, it is the agency's over-the-horizon powers of anticipation and analysis. And for baseball, the myth of the athlete-champion.

Each of these institutions tried to hang on to their internal sense of identity. Why should we expect anything less of CBS?

THE PARALLELS between the Church's behaviors and those of CBS are particularly striking. For years complaints about predator priests, like complaints about political bias in the newsroom, were swept aside with disbelief or sneers. When particular facts gave rise to unavoidable conclusion of corruption, the offending priest was sent away to a distant parish or rehab. Any comprehensive attempt to warn leadership, like Father Thomas Doyle's 1985 report on the abuse problem to the Bishops or Bernard Goldberg's polemic Bias, were buried or ignored. The astonishing details of indifference to the scandal by Church authorities can be found in David France's Our Fathers. The go-to book on CBS's collapse of credibility has yet to be written, though my new book Blog provides a concise summary of the Rathergate specifics.

There is a temptation among many CBS observers to see the just released internal investigation led by Richard Thornburgh and Louis Boccardi as a full accounting and a sort of conclusion to the Rathergate scandal of last fall. Certainly CBS President Les Moonves treated the report that way, seizing especially on what he saw as the panel's exoneration of CBS News of the charge of political bias. Dan Rather, like Bernard Law, is being sent off to a tarnished semi-retirement, and the other cardinals and bishops of big media at least seem ready to put a bow on it.

The Law/Rather analogy is a misleading application of a meaningful comparison. At the end, Law was a disgraced, nearly broken and by most accounts genuinely contrite figure. His Diocese was obliged to wholesale beautiful properties, and a full and grindingly embarrassing opening of files has occurred.

Nothing like this has happened at CBS. In fact, just the opposite. The friends of CBS, like the friends of Law in the early years of the sexual abuse scandals, are chiding critics of the network as extremists or fanatics. These apologists are citing the Thornburgh-Boccardi report as "detailed," "exhaustive," and "comprehensive." It is, of course, nothing of the sort. It is, in fact, a whitewash that can be summed up this way: "Blah, blah, blah, blah. We cannot conclude there is a political agenda at CBS and we cannot conclude that the documents are forgeries. Blah. Blah. Blah. Blah."

Ask yourself what you know this week that you didn't know seven days ago? That Mary Mapes has been fired as opposed to would be fired? That she was an obsessed and fanatical Bush-hater? That the story was rushed to air?

We knew all of these things, and we know nothing new of significance post-report. We don't know who Lucy Ramirez is. We don't know the extent of the Kerry campaign coordination with Mapes and her team. We don't know who cooked up the scheme to use forgeries in an attempt to influence a presidential election. We don't know how many more Mary Mapeses are embedded within CBS. We don't even know if Dan Rather uses email or a blackberry. There has been no release of original documents, and no comprehensive release of transcripts of the panel's interviews with leading figures in the scandal.

The internal report resembles nothing so much as the various maneuvers adopted by the Diocese of Boston to do anything but admit the extent and depth of its scandal throughout the '80s and the '90s. It is a stonewall, and a clever one, designed as it is to appear comprehensive by virtue of length and footnotes, and signed off on by a former United States attorney general. A bit of genius, as well, to limit "The Panel" to a membership of two. Not much of a chance of an inconvenient dissenting opinion when the club is that small.

Patrick Ruffini and Jim Geraghty, among others, have worried that bloggers unsatisfied with the CBS whitewash run the risk of appearing extreme, even Javert-like. The trouble is that the central issue--agenda journalism as practiced by stark partisans operating within Big Media--has not only been sidestepped by the panel, it has been denied by Les Moonves. The key question is how many more Mapeses there are, how many more "Lucy Ramirezes" will surface in the out years, and how many more partisan attacks dressed up as reporting will be seen in future election cycles.

The folks eager to grant absolution to CBS, or to at least walk away from what they see as the train wreck, should read France's book. Of course the injury done to innocent victims of sexual assault cannot be compared to the costs of agenda journalism to the public's expectation of objective reporting; but a cover-up is a cover-up.

Hugh Hewitt is the host of a nationally syndicated radio show, and author most recently of Blog: Understanding the Information Reformation That is Changing Your World. His daily blog can be found at HughHewitt.com.