The End Of "Star Journalism"

The panels report on Rathergate is clear on one point – the atmosphere of “star journalism” that exists at CBS was a primary contributor to the mess CBS got itself into. At every turn the conventions of investigative journalism were short-shrift or ignored altogether because the “A” team was on the case. They rode the story like a bull through a china shop, leaving co-workers either shell-shocked or complicit in their haste to run with their new “evidence.”

On ABC’s Nightline, former Attorney General Dick Thornburg stated that if there was any villain in this report it would be “haste.” One suspects that he is being overly generous to the principals at CBS, since the full report catalogs an atmosphere where the “haste” was manufactured. That “haste” was created, then exploited, by segment producer Mary Mapes and to a lesser extent anchor Dan Rather.

In his response [PDF] to the report, CBS CEO Leslie Moonves lays in to the “star” producer.

Mary Mapes. Mapes was the producer of the segment. An Emmy Award-winning producer, one of the most highly regarded professionals in the business, she recently had broken the story on the Abu Ghraib prison abuses. The Panel shows that it was that record and level of trust that led those around Mapes to defer to her to a far greater extent than was warranted.

In this case, as described by the Panel, her basic reporting was faulty and her responses when questioned led others who trusted her down the wrong road. Her confidential source was not reliable and her authenticators were unable to authenticate the documents, and yet she maintained the opposite. In addition, the Panel cites a number of instances where Mapes’ accounts radically differ from those of her colleagues and sources. This is truly disquieting. For these reasons and many others outlined in the Panel’s work, Mary Mapes is terminated, effective immediately.Moonves is less damning toward Dan Rather, but hints that the retirement was most likely a orchestrated “save face” maneuver.

The Panel found that Dan Rather was pushed to the limit in the week before the September 8th broadcast. He was finishing up the anchoring job at the 2004 Republican Convention and was covering Hurricane Frances in Florida. He asked the right questions initially, but then made the same errors of credulity and over-enthusiasm that beset many of his colleagues in regard to this segment. He was convinced that the documents were authenticated because he was told in no uncertain terms that this was so. He defended the story over-zealously afterward; again, he believed in a star associate with whom he had worked often, and to award-winning result. The Panel has found that his unwillingness to consider that CBS News and his colleague were in the wrong was a mistake, and that the broadcast would have benefited from a more direct involvement on Rather’s part.

Dan Rather has already apologized for the segment and taken personal responsibility for his part in the broadcast. He voluntarily moved to set a date to step down from the CBS Evening News anchor chair in March of 2005, which will give him more time to concentrate on his reporting for CBS NEWS. After examining the report and thinking about its implications, we believe any further action would not be appropriate.In September 2004, Pulitzer Prize winning author and best selling journalist, David Halberstam noted that the “star journalism” culture at CBS was a long standing problem that affected many other stories at the network. In this case Dan Rather rushed to broadcast a story that didn’t withstand even the most cursory review, save for Mapes manipulation of the process. Whether Rather was manipulated by Mapes or whether he was a willing participant; we may never know for sure.

CBS’s own Andy Rooney sees that distinction as irrelevant. He tells USA TODAY, “The people on the front lines got fired while the people most instrumental in getting the broadcast on [Rather and CBS News chief Andrew Heyward] escaped.”

For Dan Rather it is a Pyhrric victory. He ends his storied career with the fallout of the scandal resting square on his shoulders, and that will stick to him forever regardless of his “escape.”

Rathergate: it came to me in a dream...
Mapes Fires Back


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