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MEDIA Report leaves CBS news with unresolved issues



Published: Mon, January 17, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



Despite findings of a probe, critics bias was involved

NEW YORK (AP) -- CBS hoped that release of an independent probe of its ill-fated story on President Bush's military service, painful as it was, would at least lift the cloud over its news division.

If only it were that simple. The report, and the network's response to it, left some questions unresolved:

U How does CBS News President Andrew Heyward effectively lead when there's widespread surprise -- including, undoubtedly, in his own shop -- at how he kept his job when four others were fired for their roles in the news organization's worst embarrassment in years?

U Can the news division change a culture that contributed to the sad comedy of errors without risking the journalism that made it great?

U After a panel with a Republican former attorney general said it couldn't prove political bias and conservatives roundly rejected that, can peace ever break out between the network and its outside critics?

The top executive overseeing CBS prime-time news programs, the executive producer of "60 Minutes Wednesday," his deputy and the story's producer were all fired last week after Richard Thornburgh and retired Associated Press chief executive Louis D. Boccardi's investigation. They determined that the show rushed an explosive story it couldn't prove onto the air and blindly defended it when the holes became apparent.

Heyward spared

Count Deborah Potter, a former CBS News correspondent and now executive director of the TV news think tank Newslab, among those surprised that Heyward also wasn't asked to leave.

"This may ultimately be a stay of execution, but we won't know that for awhile," she said.

CBS Chairman Leslie Moonves concluded Heyward gave the right warnings and issued the right orders, but his staff didn't carry them out.

"If they fall down on the job, he shouldn't be held responsible," said Gene Jankowski, former CBS Broadcasting chairman and now an investment banker for Veronis Suhler Stevenson. "They should be held responsible."

Others say that's hardly a classic "the buck stops here" attitude. The story's producer, Mary Mapes, said Heyward saw and approved the story before it went on the air. The CBS News boss ultimately presided over the disastrous 12-day defense before Dan Rather's begrudging apology.

But Heyward serves a constituency of one: Moonves. And he didn't want to leave CBS News rudderless when it faces its biggest decision in many years -- the replacement for Rather when he steps down in March.

Star culture

Moonves talked about a culture change within CBS News.

"I think there were certain problems with the process where possibly star producers are given too much latitude," he said.

Given the cottage industry of critics who have watched the network's every word for partisan nuance, CBS was most heartened by the panel's conclusion that the report wasn't driven by political bias. Mapes was scolded, however, for inappropriately putting one of her sources in touch with the Kerry campaign.

"When Richard Thornburgh, one of the panelists, was all over the media saying they could not prove political bias, I don't think it comes with much more authority," Mason said.




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