Reliable Sources panel dismissed Rather claims, but left out other times when CBS allegedly placated White House

››› ››› RAPHAEL SCHWEBER-KOREN

During a discussion of Dan Rather's lawsuit against CBS, CNN's Howard Kurtz asked if it was "plausible" that CBS made Rather "a scapegoat to placate the Bush administration" over the controversial 60 Minutes II report about President Bush's service in the Texas Air National Guard, as Rather alleges. Kurtz's guests -- conservative radio host Laura Ingraham and former CBS Evening News executive producer Rome Hartman -- disputed Rather's assertion. But neither Kurtz nor his guests mentioned two other instances in which CBS allegedly acted to placate the White House in 2004.

On the September 23 edition of CNN's Reliable Sources, during a discussion of HDNet global correspondent and former CBS Evening News anchor Dan Rather's lawsuit against CBS, host Howard Kurtz asked if it was "plausible" that CBS made Rather "a scapegoat to placate the Bush administration," as Rather alleges the network did following his controversial 60 Minutes II report about President Bush's service in the Texas Air National Guard. Kurtz directed the question to conservative radio host Laura Ingraham, who replied that "the idea that this was an effort to appease President Bush" was "laughable." Former Evening News executive producer Rome Hartman agreed, saying that "this was not an effort to placate anyone." But neither Kurtz nor his guests mentioned two other instances in which CBS allegedly acted to placate the White House in 2004: then-60 Minutes correspondent Ed Bradley's story on the Bush administration's pre-Iraq war claims about purported Iraqi nuclear capabilities, which CBS shelved because, according to a CBS spokeswoman, it would have been "inappropriate to air the report so close to the presidential election"; and Rather's story on abuse of detainees at the Abu Ghraib prison, which he alleges CBS executives stalled in response to administration pressure.

As Media Matters for America has noted, in January 2005, then-CBS News president Andrew Heyward reportedly met with then-White House communications director Dan Bartlett in an effort to repair relations with the White House in the aftermath of the controversial story about Bush's service in the Texas Air National Guard. According to Broadcasting & Cable magazine: "Heyward was 'working overtime to convince Bartlett that neither CBS News nor Rather had a vendetta against the White House,' our source says, 'and from here on out would do everything it could to be fair and balanced.' " Rather alleged in his lawsuit that, on November 3, 2004 -- the day after the presidential election -- CBS president Les Moonves told Rather's agent that CBS was removing Rather as anchor of the CBS Evening News. Rather also alleges that, after he stepped down as anchor in March 2005 until he left CBS in June 2006, CBS "provided him with few assignments, little staff, very little air time, and did not permit him to cover important stories."

Indeed, Moonves reportedly said that the White House's feelings toward the network improved with Bob Schieffer taking over for Rather as CBS Evening News anchor. In a July 21, 2005, column, Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Gail Shister quoted Moonves as saying: "That's not the end-all, be-all, but obviously the White House doesn't hate CBS anymore with Schieffer in the anchor chair."

Moreover, during the controversy over Rather's 60 Minutes II story on Bush's Texas Air National Guard service, CBS canceled Bradley's extensive report on the administration's pre-Iraq war claim that Saddam Hussein was close to developing nuclear weapons. In the piece, Bradley reportedly explored the role in the prewar debate of forged documents purporting to show that Iraq had purchased uranium from Niger. According to a September 25, 2004, New York Times article, CBS spokeswoman Kelli Edwards said that the network had decided not to air Bradley's piece because "[w]e now believe it would be inappropriate to air the report so close to the presidential election." The Times reported that Edwards' statement came in response to an online Newsweek report that "described the frustration of CBS News reporters and producers who said the network had concluded that it could not legitimately criticize the president because of the questions about the National Guard report." After deciding to hold Bradley's story because it was "inappropriate," Heyward went on to tell the Associated Press 'it would be inappropriate for us to succumb to partisan pressure to air it earlier.'" Further, in a March 7, 2005, New Yorker article, staff writer Ken Auletta reported that CBS executives said that they held Bradley's piece to avoid the appearance that CBS wanted to defeat Bush:

No one argued that [Viacom chairman and CEO Sumner] Redstone, or [CBS president Les] Moonves, would edit news pieces, but in the end Heyward, with the concurrence of other news executives, decided to hold the Ed Bradley piece. In explaining CBS's reasons to Bradley and [producer David] Gelber, Heyward and other news executives said that if CBS were to air it in the wake of the National Guard fiasco it would make it appear that CBS was determined to defeat Bush. Many at CBS News agreed, but with reluctance -- and with anger, directed at [producer Mary] Mapes and Rather. Heyward also told Bradley and Gelber that the segment needed more work. Bradley understood the first reason but not the second. "I respect his decision not to put it on," Bradley said of Heyward, though he also said, "I thought the piece was good to go."

According to Auletta, Bradley said that Gelber told him the story had been ready for broadcast on its original scheduled air date of September 8, 2004, but Bradley's story was reportedly held in favor of Rather and Mapes' story about Bush and the Texas Air National Guard.

Prior to CBS' decision to spike Bradley's story, Salon.com received a copy of it and subsequently reported on its contents in a September 29, 2004, article, describing it as a "hard-hitting report making a powerful case that in trying to build support for the Iraq war, the Bush administration either knowingly deceived the American people about Saddam Hussein's nuclear capabilities or was grossly credulous." From the article:

The importance that CBS placed on the report was evident by its unusual length: It was slated to run a full half hour, double the usual 15 minutes of a single segment.

[...]

The report contains little new information, but it is powerfully, coherently and credibly reported. It features the first on-camera interview with Elisabetta Burba, the Italian journalist who received the fake Niger documents in 2002 and passed them on to the U.S. embassy in Rome. Burba tells how she traveled to Niger and concluded that Iraq could not have purchased uranium from the tightly controlled French-run mines in Niger and that therefore the documents must have been faked.

[...]

[T]he CBS producers apparently decided to concentrate on what could be nailed down: the Bush administration had, either intentionally or with breathtaking credulity, relied on patently false intelligence to make the case for invading Iraq.

"Two years ago, Americans heard some frightening words from President Bush and his closest advisors," Bradley said in his introduction of the now-shelved report. "Saddam Hussein, they said, could soon have a nuclear bomb. Of course, we now know that wasn't true." Not only did Saddam not have a nuclear program, Bradley said, but "he hadn't for more than 10 years. How could the Bush administration be so wrong about something so important?"

The answer, Bradley was to have told viewers, "has a lot to do with a single piece of evidence: A set of documents that appear to prove Saddam was secretly buying uranium ore."

Also, in his lawsuit, Rather alleged that CBS management "attempted to bury" his earlier piece on the abuse of Iraqi prisoners by members of the U.S. military at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, which aired in late April 2004. He asserted that the reason for their actions was "the obvious negative impact the story would have on the Bush administration with which [CBS's parent company] Viacom and CBS wished to curry favor." From Rather's complaint:

Abu Ghraib

38. In late April 2004, Mr. Rather, as Correspondent, and Mary Mapes, a veteran producer, broke a news story of national urgency on 60 Minutes II - the abuse by American military personnel of Iraqi prisoners in the Abu Ghraib prison. The story, which included photographs of the abusive treatment of prisoners, consumed American news media for many months.

39. Despite the story's importance, and because of the obvious negative impact the story would have on the Bush administration with which Viacom and CBS wished to curry favor, CBS management attempted to bury it. As a general rule, senior executives of CBS News do not take a hands-on role in the editing and vetting of a story. However, CBS News President Andrew Heyward and Senior Vice President Betsy West were involved intimately in the editing and vetting process of the Abu Ghraib story. However, for weeks, they refused to grant permission to air the story, continuously insisting that it lacked sufficient substantiation. As Mr. Rather and Ms. Mapes provided each requested verification, Mr. Heyward and Ms. West continued to "raise the goalposts," insisting on additional substantiation.

40. Even after obtaining nearly a dozen, now notorious, photographs, which made it impossible to deny the accuracy of the story, Mr, Heyward and Ms. West continued to delay the story for an additional three weeks. This delay was, in part, occasioned by acceding to pressures brought to bear by government officials urging CBS to drop the story or at least delay it. As a part of that pressure, Mr. Rather received a personal telephone call from General Richard B. Myers, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, urging him to delay the story.

41. Only after it became apparent that, due to the delay, sources were talking to other news organizations and that CBS would be "scooped," Mr. Heyward and Ms. West approved the airing of the story for April 28, 2004. Even then, CBS imposed the unusual restrictions that the story would be aired only once, that it would not be preceded by on-air promotion, and that it would not be referenced on the CBS Evening News.

From the September 23 edition of CNN's Reliable Sources:

KURTZ: Let me ask you, because you, in the mid '90s, were at least briefly a commentator for the CBS Evening News.

INGRAHAM: Yup.

KURTZ: You understand the culture there. Does it sound plausible to you that CBS, as Dan Rather alleges in this lawsuit, was making him a scapegoat -- his word -- a scapegoat to placate the Bush White House?

INGRAHAM: Well, no. I didn't see any efforts to placate Republicans when I was at CBS. I mean, I was a conservative, I was kind of a fish out water when I was there for a couple of years in '96, '97. And the idea that this is an effort -- this was an effort to appease President Bush? I mean, that is -- that is Comedy Central time. I go -- that is laughable. And I think that was probably one of the more absurd things that he said on [CNN's] Larry King Live the other night.

HARTMAN: Well, and I was there during this time. This was not an effort to placate anybody. There was a very sincere and thorough -- exhaustive, really -- effort by the people that ran CBS News to look into this and to get to the bottom of it. This was not an attempt to paper anything over or to find any scapegoats. I'm telling you that the people that launched that internal probe and conducted it did so in good faith. I know Dan disagrees with that. But he's wrong.

Posted In
Government, Ethics
Network/Outlet
CNN
Person
Howard Kurtz, Laura Ingraham
Show/Publication
Reliable Sources
Stories/Interests
Propaganda/Noise Machine
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