The report of the Individual Review Panel on the September 8, 2004 60 Minutes Wednesday segment, "For the Record," (234-page PDF, "CBS Report"), is a devastating indictment of CBS News' handling of their report on the forged Killian Memos. I followed the CBS News' response to criticism of the report and their unethical and incompetent response closely (Incompetent AND Unethical: The Story of CBS News' Response to Criticism of the Killian Memo Forgeries - Part One). Earlier, I wrote about why Andrew Heyward should resign given the Report's findings (Why Does CBS News President Andrew Heyward Still Have His Job?) and another critique (Omissions and Other Critiques of the CBS News Report).
Many have noted one of the conclusions of the Panel: that there was no political agenda by individuals at CBS News against the President (p28 of the Report):
However, the Panel cannot conclude that a political agenda at 60 Minutes Wednesday drove either the timing or the airing or the Segment or its content.
However, to say that there was not an "agenda" is not to say there was no bias. And it is in this mistaken presumption that the Panel and their Report have done CBS no favors. Note this statement from Linda Mason, CBS News' senior vice president for standards and special projects, the person CBS has created a new position for due to the Panel's recommendations (Network's brass, critics take solace in the report
"That for us was the big headline: That there was no political agenda, because that would have been terrible," said Linda Mason, CBS News' senior vice president for standards and special projects, whose position was created Monday in response to the report. "We were all greatly relieved to see that the panel did extensive work and gave us a clean bill of health in terms of it not being politically motivated."
Well, I wouldn't exactly call the Panel's report a "clean bill of health." A "clean bill of health" would seem to indicate that nothing at CBS needs to change. Probably not the best point of view for the person who is supposed to make sure similar errors don't happen in the future. Even the Panel found (p28):
The Panel reviewed this issue and found certain actions that could support such charges [of political motivation].
Fired reporter Mapes reads even more into the Report's findings:
Mapes, whom the report saddled with much of the blame for what went wrong, said in a statement, "I am heartened to see that the panel found no political bias on my part, as I have none. For 25 years, I have built a reputation as a fair, honest and thorough journalist."
Nevermind that one can earn a reputation as a fair, honest and thorough journalist while acknowledging bias (indeed, such transparency might help one earn such a reputation). But that is not
what the Panel found. The Panel determined that there was no political agenda
, not that there was no bias, and that is why the Panel did CBS no favors.
[UPDATE] Jeff Jarvis is an earlier entry:
The panel and the network refused to deal with the key issue of bias. They could have denied it. They could have taken the bull by the horns and grappled with the fact that, of course, Rather and Mapes have
bias personal perspectives about Bush and this story and more. But they did the worst thing: neither. That's no way to build credibility and trust with your public.
Does CBS News have a political agenda? No, of course not. It is almost a foolish question to ask. As a news network, CBS's policies are clear and favor neutral, objective reporting. As an institution, CBS News does not have a political agenda and I would be shocked if there was evidence to contradict this.
However, that does not mean that CBS is bias-free. Indeed, it would be incredible if any human institution were.
Are human beings biased? Of course they are. We are all biased and, often, the worst biases are the unacknowledged ones. If you don't acknowledge that you are biased, you are far more likely to make errors in judgement as a result of those biases. That is the problem that CBS News and all journalism that adheres to the "view from nowhere" face. However, by absolving CBS News of a "political agenda" the Panel ducked the much more difficult question of bias, and whether bias might have made the errors CBS News committed more or less likely. By ignoring the question of bias, and focusing solely on the nearly foolish charge of "agenda," the Panel permits CBS News to continue along its merry way without introspection on how to deal with the inevitable biases all journalists must face.
The question is not whether CBS News was out to "get" President Bush. I have no doubt that CBS News would have been interested in a similar story about Sen. Kerry and would have also pursued it. However, given the evidence noted in the Report, I find it difficult to believe that those involved would have been equally likely to make the same errors in pursuit of a story against Kerry. I find it difficult to imagine, for example, that Mapes would have arranged contact between Karl Rove and one of her sources.
This isn't about political agendas, but biases that blind people to error.
The absolute level of blindness can be seen here (p211):
The political agenda question was posed by the Panel directly to Dan Rather and his producer, Mary Mapes, who appear to have drawn the greatest attention in terms of possible political agendas. Both strongly denied that they brought any political bias to the Segment. The Panel recognizes that those who saw bias at work in the Segment are likely to sweep such denials aside. However, the Panel will not level allegations for which it cannot offer adequate proof. [emphasis added]
Of course they brought political bias to the Segment. How could they not have? Show me someone who is entirely apolitical, and I'll show you someone not fit to be an investigative journalist or even an anchorman. However, the fact that they have biases does not mean they operate with a particular agenda.
That, I think, is the real problem with the Panel's Report. Not only are they operating with an extremely high standard of proof, perhaps inappropriately, but certainly with the wrong measure (p 211):
There has been widespread speculation in the media that the September 8 Segment was motivated, in whole or in part, by an anti-Bush political agenda.
Here they focus on whether or not there was an "agenda" or list of things to be done. That isn't how it works. Nor are journalists regularly "motivated" by an "agenda." Journalists are "motivated" to get a good story. However, journalists frequently err due to bias.
Agendas and motivations are straight-forward. However, bias is a much more subtle creature. Bias inhibits impartial judgements. Bias colors decision-making. Bias blinds one to error. Unfortunately, the Panel wasn't looking for that, the Panel was looking for an "agenda." Furthermore, the Panel confused the issue:
The Panel does not find a basis to accuse those who investigated, produced, vetted or aired the Segment of having a political bias (p211).
Did those investigated not have an agenda
, or did they not have bias
? Furthermore, did the Panel really mean to say that there is no basis for an accusation of bias? Obviously, there was a basis for accusation. You can hardly find that there was an appearance of bias and yet still claim there is no basis for an accusation. There may be no basis for a finding, but certainly there must be a basis for an accusation. Come on, these are lawyers writing this report.
More importantly, if the Panel is claiming that there is no bias, as the above sentence indicates, then the Panel must clearly be mistaken. Perhaps, the Panel could not make a determination as to the specific bias, but that is yet another path the Panel might have taken but didn't.
There is further evidence that the Panel had a very narrow view of what bias looks like (p211-2):
It should be noted that 60 Minutes Wednesday was hardly alone in pursuing the story. Other mainstream media, including USA TODAY, The New York Times and The Associated Press, were pursuing the same story in what was clearly a competitive race to be first. In fact, USA TODAY on September 9 published a similar story relying on the same Killian documents, but has not been as criticized for its story as CBS News has been for the September 8 Segment. The Panel recognizes that some will see this widespread media attention not as evidence that 60 Minutes Wednesday was not motivated by bias but instead proof that all of mainstream media has a liberal bias. That is a perception beyond the Panels assignment.
This paragraph is problematic for several reasons. Yes, the fact that other news organizations were pursuing the same story is evidence against an "agenda." However, the fact that these other organizations didn't run with the story is not particularly good evidence that there was no bias. Indeed, one might ask why 60 Minutes Wednesday
erred in running the story when these other outlets held back. One hardly has to believe in a Vast Left Wing Conspiracy to believe that when there is wide spread media attention, but only one outlet runs with a story, that hardly proves that that one outlet is without bias. In fact, it might be seen, not as evidence of widespread bias, but of bias in a single news organization. Of course, that might never have occured to the Panel.
The point about USA Today is interesting, but why make it without adding a bit more information? Is this a taste of the "everybody does it" defense? Perhaps the Panel might also have pointed out that USA Today only ran with the story because 60 Minutes Wednesday had first reported it. From USA Today on September 13:
USA TODAY obtained copies of the memos Wednesday night, shortly after the 60 Minutes broadcast, and reported that in Thursday's editions. The newspaper's editors, like those at other media, relied in part on the fact that the White House did not challenge the memos' authenticity and released copies late Wednesday.
'Since we've become aware of questions about the authenticity we've been pursuing those questions aggressively,' USA TODAY Executive Editor John Hillkirk said Sunday.
Perhaps USA Today
also wasn't criticized as much because they didn't have the same level of culpability for publishing the documents (they relied on CBS, which claimed to have authenticated them) and, more importantly, they didn't defend the authenticity of the documents as ludicrously as CBS did. Just saying.
I might also note that even the Panel agreed that CBS News would likely not have been criticized nearly as much if they had decided to take their critics seriously in the early days of the scandal, as USA Today did. Yet, the Panel does bring up the USA Today point? Why?
In any case, ultimately, the main fault of the Panel in looking for a political agenda at CBS is that they essentially endorsed the "view from nowhere." They assume that bias is wrong (p209):
The Panel finds it inconsistent with the need for CBS News to be nonpartisan and unbiased for one of 60 Minutes Wednesdays producers to seek to open a door into the Kerry campaign on behalf of a source producing documents damaging to President Bush. [emphasis added]
It is not wrong to be biased. Bias is inevitable and even admirable in an investigative journalist. What is wrong is not disclosing or acknowledging bias. What is wrong, is pretending that one is unbiased. Not only is such pretense false, but it leads one down the path of self-deception and error.
If one acknowledges bias, or the potential for bias, then one can began seeking solutions that reduce the possibility of error because of bias. However, if you don't even acknowledge the problem, how can you find a proper solution?
With their findings regarding bias, the Panel has only set CBS up for more error down the road. Those remaining at CBS will continue to operate under the presumption that they are unbiased, which will only encourage error, rather than discourage it.
The Panel has done CBS no favors.