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Which Way Is Up?

Is CBS wise to insist that there was no political bias involved?

11:00 PM, Jan 13, 2005 • By TERRY EASTLAND
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NO POLITICAL BIAS--none at all. So says the independent panel that CBS News asked to find out what went wrong with its infamous Sixty Minutes Wednesday broadcast concerning George W. Bush's service in the Texas Air National Guard. "The panel," says its 224-page report, "cannot conclude that a political agenda at 60 Minutes drove the . . . segment."

Why not? Certainly the panel could have drawn that conclusion had it uncovered "smoking gun" evidence--such as an anti-Bush or pro-John Kerry email written by, say, the producer, Mary Mapes. Or if it had found evidence of an agenda in her "long pursuit" of the story, or the fact that it relied on many anti-Bush sources, or the fact that Ms. Mapes made at the least an unwise contact with the Kerry campaign.

Certainly, too, the panel could have declared the existence of bias had Mapes or the correspondent, Dan Rather, confessed to it. Which of course neither did. "Absolutely, unequivocally untrue," Rather said.

The panel's no-bias conclusion has brought sighs of relief inside CBS. It shouldn't. The problem for CBS is that the panel failed to take seriously whether the many flaws it found might, when taken together, be evidence of bias. After all, in certain legal contexts, bias that is "absolutely, unequivocally" denied can nonetheless be inferred from actions that depart from normal practices and procedures. Not incidentally, CBS maintains that the segment was just such an aberration from its tradition of journalistic excellence.

How bad, then, was the segment, how gross the departures from ostensibly normal practices and procedures?

The piece began with Rather's interview of Ben Barnes, the Democrat and former Lieutenant Governor of Texas, in which he said that Bush received his help in getting into the Guard. But left out of the on-air interview was Barnes's admission that he didn't know whether his call had any effect. Nor, the panel says, was information contrary to what Barnes said--statements by a general and other ex-Guardsmen that no strings were pulled--even discussed during the "vetting" process.

The second part of the segment highlighted four documents allegedly taken from the personal files of the commander of Bush's unit. The documents suggested Bush was a Guardsman who shirked his duties.

But, says the panel: 60 Minutes failed to establish a basis for saying the documents were taken from the commander's files. It made a false statement in representing that "an expert had authenticated the . . . documents when all he had done was authenticate one signature from one document used in the segment." Indeed, it failed to "obtain clear authentication" of any of the documents from any document examiner. It also failed to "develop adequate corroboration to support the statements" in the documents and to discover "notable inconsistencies in content and format" between the documents and official Guard records. And it failed to interview former Guardsmen holding "different perspectives about the documents."

Moreover, again according to the panel, 60 Minutes failed to scrutinize "a sometimes controversial source with a partisan [anti-Bush] agenda"--the man who gave CBS the documents--and to find the individual he said gave him the documents.

The panel attributes all these problems to "the rush to air" the story, competitive zeal, that sort of thing. A different panel--made up of ordinary citizens across America--may look at the tilted Barnes interview, the bogus documents, the false statement, the dubious sourcing, all of it producing a segment drawn as like a dagger against Bush eight weeks from Election Day, and say there could be, might be, some bias here. Maybe not as the only factor but surely somewhere in the mix.

As Alex Jones, once of New York Times, now the head of Harvard's Shorenstein Center on Press and Politics, told his old paper this week: "It's foolish to separate this entirely from politics, no matter what the report says." Foolish, indeed--especially if you're at CBS and you're trying to figure out which way, from the wreckage of this disaster, is up.

Terry Eastland is publisher of The Weekly Standard.