Jewish World Review Oct. 4, 2004 / 19 Tishrei, 5765
John H. Fund
The Producer: Meet Mary Mapes, the crusading journalist behind CBS's current troubles
SEATTLE At a joint appearance over the weekend, the network news anchors began to circle the wagons in defense of the beleaguered Dan Rather. "There's a political jihad against Dan Rather and CBS," complained NBC's Tom Brokaw at a New York Public Library event Saturday. "It's a demagoguery unleashed on the Internet."
ABC's Peter Jennings then weighed in. "I think the attack on CBS is an attack on mainstream media, an attack on the so-called 'liberal media," he told the audience. Mr. Rather said CBS executives have asked him not to comment on the botched story involving fabricated memos about President Bush's Vietnam-era National Guard service.
The reason he can't comment is that last Tuesday former attorney general Dick Thornburgh and former Associated Press chief Louis Boccardi began their outside review of the "60 Minutes" foul-up. They began calling in CBS honchos for intense interrogations. New York's Daily News reports that among those summoned were CBS News President Andrew Hayward, Mr. Rather and Mary Mapes, the producer of the Rather segment on the memos.
Most viewers don't know that on TV newsmagazines producers like Ms. Mapes do most of the important reporting. The on-air correspondents normally just parachute into the story at the end. The "60 Minutes" National Guard segment was an exception. Mr. Rather has acknowledged that he was deeply invested in the story, and when he learned Ms. Mapes had gotten the documents from Bill Burkett, a controversial former National Guard lieutenant colonel, he asked Mr. Heyward to take charge. In an interview with the New York Times, Mr. Rather quoted himself as telling Mr. Hayward, "I have to ask you to oversee, in a hands-on way, the handling of the story." According to Mr. Rather, "He got it. He immediately agreed."
Because of the intense participation of Mr. Rather and Mr. Heyward in the story, many current and former CBS employees are anxious that the Thornburgh-Boccardi probe be as thorough as possible. "If we have a systemic problem better to handle it once and for all," one told me.
Former employees of KIRO, the CBS affiliate in Seattle where Ms. Mapes got her start in the 1980s, agree. Some told me that the seeds of CBS's current troubles may have been planted more than 15 years ago when Ms. Mapes was a hard-charging producer at KIRO. Before she left Seattle to become a producer at Mr. Rather's "CBS Evening News," Ms. Mapes produced a sensational report on a killing of a drug suspect by police that rested on the shoulders of an unreliable source whose story collapsed under cross-examination. Sound familiar?
Former colleagues of Ms. Mapes agree that she was a passionate practitioner of advocacy journalism. "She went into journalism to change society," says former KIRO anchorwoman Susan Hutchison. "She always was very, very cause-oriented." Lou Guzzo, a former KIRO news commentator who served as counselor to the late Gov. Dixy Lee Ray, a Democrat, says advocates in journalism are fine, "but if you're as liberal and activist as Mary and work on the news rather than the opinion side, it creates problems."
John Carlson, another news commentator at KIRO from 1986 to 1993 and now a conservative talk show host, recalls frequently arguing with Ms. Mapes after going off air. "The joke was that I'd have to debate twice at KIRO," he recalls, "once on the set and then shortly afterward with Mary."
Mr. Carlson vividly recalls how Ms. Mapes's social advocacy landed her in trouble in a major story. In the mid- and late 1980s, the Seattle police undertook a series of raids on well-known crack houses. Many dealers were minorities, and there were allegations that the police were being racially selective in the use of force.
In the winter of 1987, officers announced themselves and knocked on the door of a known Seattle drug den. They then heard some noise and forced themselves in when no one answered the door. A low-level drug dealer named Erdman Bascomb stood up with a dark, shiny object in his hand. An officer fired, Bascomb fell, and officers pounced on the "weapon": a black TV remote control. Bascomb died.
The Bascomb shooting angered many people in Seattle, and officials quickly organized an inquest. Then KIRO aired an incendiary story titled "A Shot in the Dark," in which a previously unknown witness named Wardell Fincher accused the cops involved in the raid of lying. He said he saw officers arrive at the house, burst in with no warning and shoot Bascomb, who might not have even known the intruders were cops. The story shifted to possible criminal wrongdoing by the police. Mr. Fincher was summoned to the inquest, and previous witnesses recalled. The reporter for the sensational segment was Mark Wrolstad, now a reporter with the Dallas Morning News. The producer was his wife, Mary Mapes.
Fortunately for the cops, Mr. Fincher wasn't the only one at the scene of the raid that night. A reporter for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Mike Barber, was tagging along with officers. Mr. Barber observed the officers arriving at the house, knocking, announcing themselves and then entering. He was there when the shooting happened and when the ambulances were summoned. At that point, a man "reeking of alcohol" walked out of some nearby bushes and approached him. He wanted to know what had just happened. That was Wardell Fincher. But Mr. Fincher wasn't thoroughly checked out, so all this came out after the story aired. The police were eventually cleared but it took years and an unsuccessful civil-rights lawsuit by the Bascomb family to undo the damage.
By that time, Ms. Mapes had left Seattle, and no one I talked with who worked at KIRO at the time can recall her being disciplined in any way for her mistake. Instead, in 1989 she was fast-tracked to the "CBS Evening News" and later became Mr. Rather's hand-picked producer on "60 Minutes." "Maybe the National Guard mess would never have happened if she had been handled properly back then," says one former KIRO reporter who still admires her work ethic and ability to break stories.
Ms. Mapes isn't talking to any other journalists, but Mr. Carlson said she called him last month after he defended her on his talk show; earlier, her father had phoned the show and said his daughter's liberal views "embarrassed" him. Mr. Carlson says that while most of his discussion with her was off the record, she allowed that "there's more to come" about Mr. Bush's military record because "it's an important story."
Mr. Carlson says he wishes his former colleague would let the story go. She clearly cared too much about "her" story of George W. Bush slacking in the National Guard. After it aired, CBS proudly proclaimed she had been working on it for five years. Mr. Rather has acknowledged that Mr. Burkett did not approach CBS News with the memos. Rather, Ms. Mapes approached him about whether he could find documents challenging Mr. Bush's military service. He quickly obliged. Ms. Mapes clearly wanted the memos to be real, and she and the CBS executives overseeing it rushed the story on air only four days after receiving all the documents despite flashing red-lights from the document examiners they consulted.
Mr. Carlson says that among its other sins, CBS simply didn't realize that most people don't care if Mr. Bush missed a physical while the Vietnam War was winding down more than 30 years ago. As one prominent journalist recently put it: "In the end, what difference does it make what one candidate or the other did or didn't do during the Vietnam War? In some ways, that war is as distant as the Napoleonic campaigns." The man who spoke those words at a time when John Kerry was under attack by the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth was Dan Rather.
To question CBS over how it rushed its story on air is not to engage in a "political jihad," as Mr. Brokaw claims. It's to ask legitimate questions about why Mr. Rather and his CBS colleagues felt differently when it came to the National Guard memos.
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JWR contributor John H. Fund is author, most recently, of "Stealing Elections: How Voter Fraud Threatens Our Democracy". (Click HERE to purchase. Sales help fund JWR.)
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©2001, John H. Fund