On September 8, 2004 CBS News' 60 Minutes Wednesday program ran a story about President Bush's National Guard service and the possibility that there was a cover-up of Bush's less than stellar performance record. Brought to light were documents allegedly written by a commander in the Texas Air National Guard, Lt. Col. Jerry Killian. CBS had obtained these documents through retired Texas National Guard Lt. Col. Bill Burkett.
The validity of the documents, as well as their source, was almost immediately questioned by a variety of critics and CBS News was forced on the defensive. Conservative webloggers and supporters of President Bush brought out their own experts to prove that the documents could only be forgeries. CBS President Andrew Heyward ordered Senior Vice President Betsy West to review the authenticity of the documents in question, but the lag time between that order and the actual review led to days of CBS supporting their story. When CBS finally came out apologizing for the segment the damage to their credibility was immense.
After an independent panel report, which stated that CBS News rushed the piece on the air and failed to properly vet the sources, four CBS News employees have lost their positions. 60 Minutes Wednesday Executive Producer Josh Howard, Senior Broadcast Producer Mary Murphy and Senior Vice President Betsy West were asked to resign while the producer of the segment, Mary Mapes, was fired. News Anchor Dan Rather is also stepping down as anchor, although he will continue as a correspondent for CBS News.
This whole situation actually made my sick to my stomach while it was happening. The presidential race was already in the later stages of total mud-slinging and I could barely watch any of the coverage. Most of the stories were very questionable anyway, as one candidate's side released a rumor or unsubstantiated fact designed to damage the credibility of another side.
What made me angry the most about the CBS situation was the attitude of the other news networks. They rather openly looked down upon CBS for falling to the level of partisan politics instead of being impartial and objective. Whenever they reported on the story there was a sense of superiority, an implication that they would never do such a thing themselves. I found this absolutely infuriating - especially from networks like Fox - because every network is politically tainted.
Instead of the story revolving around the fact that CBS News' journalistic vetting process had a break-down the story became about Dan Rather and his "liberal vendetta" against the president. I recall from another story that part of the problem in this situation was that Dan Rather was only lightly involved in the preparation of the story. Rather had been off doing other stories and had left it in the hands of the other people. So many people focused on Rather when in my eyes it was his support team that failed him. I'm not saying blame can't land on him, but making him the totem of disdain was another example of the over-simplification of facts in an election year.
As a journalism student this situation severely shook my faith in my own ability to survive in the field. It made me nervous about the idea that facts and information I might try my hardest to confirm could still turn out wrong. There also seemed to be a couple cases of sources saying one thing and then, after the story ran, changing their statements. Even though CBS News' story ended up being wrong, the situation made me fear the thought that I could do a completely true story and still end up fired because my story brought about such public outrage.