NEW YORK – CBS has appointed former U.S. Attorney General Dick Thornburgh and former Associated Press chief executive Lou Boccardi to investigate the National Guard documents story that has caught the news network by storm.
The two-person review panel will begin its work this week and will have full access and complete cooperation from CBS News and CBS, as well as all of the resources necessary, CBS said in a statement Wednesday. The panel will report its findings to CBS News and CBS. The findings also will be made public, according to the network.
Meanwhile, a veteran CBS News producer may be taking the fall for the news network at the center of the "memogate" controversy regarding President Bush's Texas Air National Guard service.
Mary Mapes (search) reported most of the story in question and also obtained the documents CBS now says it can't authenticate.
There are other signs of internal strife within the news network.
The New York Times and New York Daily News reported that two CBS correspondents for the original Sunday edition of "60 Minutes" — Morley Safer and Steve Kroft — are distancing themselves from the "60 Minutes Wednesday" episode that originally aired the documents on Sept. 8. They reportedly want it known that they were not the ones duped.
"They've done a lot of great work over there … particularly with the Abu Ghraib story," Kroft told the Daily News. "They didn't rush that story on the air. This one, for whatever reason, they did."
At the same time, the White House wants to know more about the debacle, in particular, exactly what sort of exchange took place between Joe Lockhart (search) — the senior Kerry campaign adviser who talked to Burkett over the phone — a CBS producer and Burkett himself. Lockhart told FOX News he only listened to Burkett for a few minutes and that the documents were never discussed.
"Now, we're supposed to believe that it was just a routine phone call; they were just talking about swift boat ads and those things," White House communications director Dan Bartlett told FOX News on Wednesday.
"It's hard to think that that passes a smell test. When you have such high-level communications and then, more importantly, when we saw the '60 Minutes' piece air, there was a full frontal assault on President Bush from the Democrat National Committee, from the Kerry campaign — from all their surrogates," Bartlett said.
Burkett told USA Today that he agreed to turn the disputed documents over to CBS if the network would arrange a conversation with the Kerry campaign.
Spokeswoman Kelli Edwards said CBS wasn't aware that this was part of any deal, but it's one of the things that will be examined by an independent commission CBS will soon appoint to look into the incident.
"It is obviously against CBS News standards and those of every other reputable news organization to be associated with any political agenda," Edwards said.
Damage to the Party?
Democratic insiders are fearful of what the scandal could do to their party.
"You start tying these connections together … I said I'm so scared because I know what's going on with my party," Democratic strategist Pat Caddell told FOX News. "The fact is, [Burkett] did not approach CBS, CBS approached him looking for the documents, which means someone tipped CBS off … which could be a violation of the law."
Veteran CBS news anchor and managing editor, Dan Rather (search), acknowledged Monday that the network approached Burkett about the documents, knowing he had been trying for several years to discredit Bush's military service record.
"The public is already voting with their feet on this and it's only gonna get worse," Caddell said. "Those documents did not come by immaculate conception, they came from somewhere."
The Lockhart contact "is going to cast more doubt on not just the practices, but the motives behind the story," added Frank Sesno, former CNN Washington bureau chief and professor at George Mason University.
Burkett, who said in an interview with CBS that aired Monday that he lied about the source of the documents, now says he got the memos from a woman named Lucy Ramirez. He told USA Today that Ramirez called him from Houston in March, offering him the documents.
But Ramirez never showed up to the meeting; instead, a man handed Burkett an envelope at the rendezvous point in Houston. Burkett said he then photocopied the documents and burned the originals and the envelope they came in. He later gave the documents to Mapes, he told the newspaper.
The New York Sun reports that Burkett may sue CBS for defamation of character and libel. Apparently Mapes promised to protect Burkett with complete anonymity and CBS was to "expend both time and money authenticating" the memos, the newspaper reported.
Ret. Col. Walter Staudt, who commanded the Texas Air National Guard in which then-Lt. George Bush served nearly three decades ago, said the president received no favoritism in getting into the Guard.
Staudt has told several news organizations before that no strings were pulled in the 1970s to get the president into the Guard and that his record was never "sugarcoated," as the disputed CBS memos allege.
Staudt said Bush was "highly qualified" and that the CBS report was erroneous.
Who Is Mary Mapes?
Mapes, 48, was described by colleagues as a dogged and talented journalist who made no secret of her liberal political beliefs.
Mapes was also responsible for unearthing photos that gave the abuse of prisoners by American soldiers in Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison (search) its visceral impact.
"She pursued stories very aggressively always," said Jeff Fager, executive producer of "60 Minutes." "She definitely has an investigative sense. She was responsible for the bulk of the work on Abu Ghraib. That was her story."
The Dallas-based producer also landed the first TV interviews with Strom Thurmond's biracial daughter and Hillary Rodham Clinton after her husband's impeachment.
Mapes was almost jailed in 1999 for refusing a judge's order to turn over a videotape of Dan Rather's interview with a white man convicted of killing a black man by dragging him behind a pickup truck.
She worked at Seattle's KIRO-TV before coming to CBS in 1989. In the "60 Minutes" tradition, producers like Mapes wield tremendous influence on the stories and operate with a great deal of independence — a status earned after many years of proving themselves, Fager said.
But be careful not to call her a scapegoat, some observers warned.
"'Scapegoat' implies that she did nothing wrong," Jonathan Klein, former executive vice president of CBS, told FOX News on Wednesday. "I think it'll be very interesting to see the outcome of that investigation -- they got into this trouble because they went with incomplete information and I think that they don't want to mete out punishments, necessarily, on incomplete information as well."
As for what may happen to CBS anchorman and managing editor Dan Rather, who delivered the report and is the public face of CBS, Klein said: "It's very hard to tell," adding that Rather, s well as anchors Mike Wallace and Ed Bradley are CBS' "badge of their standards and their values."
"When damage is done to someone like that, naturally you have to take stock of the damage done on the core viewers," Klein added.
'This Was a Story That Was Rushed'
John Carlson, a former commentator at KIRO-TV who is host of a conservative radio talk show in Seattle, remembers Mapes as a talented producer with whom he often argued politics in the newsroom.
Mapes was "quite liberal" and disliked the current President Bush's father, he said.
"She definitely was someone who was motivated by what she cared about and definitely went into journalism to make a difference," Carlson said. "She's not the sort of person who went into journalism to report the news and offer an array of commentary."
Carlson spoke with Mapes about the National Guard story a week ago, and said that he believes she "put so much time into it that she wanted something to come of it."
"This was a woman with a good reputation," he said. "The mistakes she made were so obvious. This was a story that was rushed because they clearly believed it was true. They wanted it to be true."
If this is all true, it's a lapse in journalistic ethics, said Marvin Kalb, senior fellow at Harvard University's Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy.
"Journalists do all kinds of odd things these days to get a news story," Kalb said, "but one of the things they should not be doing is paying the price of a political contact."
FOX News' Liza Porteus, Kelly Wright and The Associated Press contributed to this report.