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After 60 Minutes ran a flawed report on President Bush's National Guard service in 2004, CBS News and its parent company formed an independent panel to investigate the segment and instituted many of the panel's recommendations, including firing several of the responsible parties. This stands in stark contrast to the aftermath of 60 Minutes' recent flawed report on the Benghazi attacks.
Former 60 Minutes producer Mary Mapes, who was fired for her role in a controversial 2004 story about President Bush's service in the Air National Guard, accused CBS News of pandering to a right-wing audience with her former program's recent Benghazi report, for which the network has been criticized and forced to retract.
"My concern is that the story was done very pointedly to appeal to a more conservative audience's beliefs about what happened at Benghazi," Mapes said by telephone from her Texas home. "They appear to have done that story to appeal specifically to a politically conservative audience that is obsessed with Benghazi and believes that Benghazi was much more than a tragedy."
At issue is the report from correspondent Lara Logan and producer Max McClellan, which spotlighted former defense contract worker Dylan Davies. In the report, and Davies' new book, he claims he witnessed the September 11, 2012, attack on the U.S. diplomatic facility. The 60 Minutes report was championed by Republican politicians and the right-wing media.
But since the story aired, other media outlets have revealed that Davies had told his employer and the FBI that he never made it to the compound on the night of the assault that killed four Americans.
Given that new information, CBS has launched an investigation into the story, while Logan appeared on CBS This Morning today and admitted the reporting was wrong and a mistake. She said 60 Minutes would be correcting the record on Sunday's broadcast.
Mapes was among several staffers, including former anchorman Dan Rather, who lost their jobs when documents used in the 2004 story could not be authenticated. Rather could not be reached for comment.
Mapes chronicled her story in the 2005 book, Truth and Duty: The Press, The President and the Privilege of Power (St. Martin's Press).
"On a human level, I feel really badly for the people who worked on that report. I have walked the halls when something like this happens," Mapes recalled in her interview with Media Matters. "Part of being human is making mistakes and being forgiven for it."
Still, Mapes stressed that "what is concerning to me is the reason they went after that story in the first place. ... It so concerns me that it appears that story was done to appeal to a conservative element in the audience; that's not the way you should choose your stories."
"Occasions like this can be incredibly instructive," Mapes concludes, but "it is important to be careful about what lessons you draw."
On September 10, 2004, CBS Evening News anchor Dan Rather dedicated five minutes of the telecast to address the brewing controversy around a 60 Minutes II report he had aired two days earlier. Featuring disputed documents from a former commander in the Texas Air National Guard, the 60 Minutes II report detailed the lingering questions about President Bush's service in a coveted state-side Guard unit during the height of the Vietnam War and how, despite his no-show service, Bush was awarded an honorable discharge.
Within hours of the report, conservative bloggers raised doubts about the documents' validity. The next day, mainstream outlets began airing their own doubts. With the network's credibility on the line, less than 48 hours after the initial report, Rather and CBS responded with a detailed defense of their reporting on its evening newscast, even though the Guard report aired on a different program, 60 Minutes II.
Rather's public defense was just one of many, high-profile actions the embattled network took in an effort to answer critics at the time. By September 20, CBS stopped defending the Guard report. It apologized for airing the segment and announced the creation of an outside panel to investigate what had gone wrong in the reporting process. In the end, four senior CBS producers were let go, 60 Minutes II was canceled, and Dan Rather was soon out as the Evening News anchor. (Rather still stands by his memo reporting.) However, CBS' independent review could not determine if the controversial Guard documents were forged. It did conclude however, there was no evidence the Guard story was driven by partisan considerations inside CBS.
CBS's frantic corporate response to the Guard controversy (which included blatant kowtowing to its partisan critics; see more below) stands in stark contrast to the network's utterly passive, non-response to the widening controversy surrounding the heavily-hyped 60 Minutes report that aired on October 27 about the terrorist attacks on the U.S. compound in Benghazi in 2012.
That report has been plagued by problems, including obvious conflicts of interest and the more recent revelation that its star witness told contradictory tales about the terror attack and what he did as it unfolded that night.
The difference in the two crisis responses is striking in part because the underlying Guard story that CBS told about Bush failing to serve his duty has been proven to be true: In the spring of 1972, with 770 days left of required duty, then-Lt. Bush unilaterally decided that he was done fulfilling his military obligation and walked away from the Guard. That means CBS could have omitted the disputed documents from its Guard report and still told an accurate story about Bush's non-service.
But CBS's dubious Benghazi report revolved around already debunked allegations about why no U.S. military forces from outside Libya were sent to save the Americans at the besieged Benghazi compound. In other words, CBS's witness controversy is attached to an-already inaccurate Benghazi report, which makes the recent 60 Minutes' transgression more serious than the one that triggered the Guard frenzy.
Journalism veterans tell Media Matters that CBS must address the glaring problems with its Benghazi report and the growing newsroom scandal. Yet the silence persists. So it's worth pondering why CBS responded so quickly, and energetically, to conservative critics in the wake of the Guard story, and why CBS feels comfortable ignoring those who point out gaping holes in its politically charged Benghazi report.
If CBS appointed another review panel this week, it would have a lot to examine.
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NPR host Michele Norris asserted that Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton has "been less than direct in explaining" her 2002 vote to authorize the use of force against Iraq, and Dan Rather claimed that Clinton "wants to have one position for the primaries and the caucuses, and then ... in the general election campaign, be more middle of the road." In fact, Clinton has explained her vote, saying, "I've ... made it very clear that if we had known then what we know now, there would never have been a vote and I never would have voted for it. But from my perspective, you know, you don't get do-overs in life." She also said, "I take responsibility for my vote. ... I have to say, if the most important thing to any of you is choosing someone who did not cast that vote or said his vote was a mistake, then there are others to choose from."