How Will the Documents Flap Affect CBS?

This is a partial transcript of "The Big Story With John Gibson," Sept. 20, 2004, that has been edited for clarity.

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JOHN GIBSON, HOST: CBS thought it found a smoking gun but ended up shooting itself in the foot.

The Bush service record fiasco has left the network with some serious explaining to do. Joining me now: former CBS News Executive Vice President Jonathan Klein (search). What's going on over there at CBS right now? Is there smoke in every office?

JONATHAN KLEIN, FORMER CBS NEWS EXECUTIVE VICE PRESIDENT: They're not having any parties, I know that. I'm sure they are hunkering down and both trying to explain themselves to their core audience...

GIBSON: How badly does this hurt them?

KLEIN: Well, it depends: short term, medium term, long term. We just saw Martha Stewart's (search) stock went up today. So, there's no permanent damage in this society anymore. So, I'm sure that they can recover from this sort of thing.

But they have to be open and aggressively open and they have to keep digging for stories and put on facts.

GIBSON: OK. Now here's what a lot of people think, that CBS is a liberal news organization, that Dan Rather (search) is liberal, that he was going after the president and he wanted this to be true so badly that he didn't give it the second look that he would ordinarily.

KLEIN: Yes, I know a lot of people think that. I'll tell you, I worked there for 20 years, I couldn't tell you his political leanings, honestly. As you know, working in newsrooms, it rarely comes up who you're voting for, what do you think of this issue or the other?

GIBSON: Did you see it in the way things are covered?

KLEIN: I'll tell you, journalists like to get scoops. And they will aggressively lean forward and lean into a piece of information and try and tear into a story and that's what makes the really memorable and greatest journalists cut through that way. Sometimes you'll get burned doing that.

GIBSON: Something has to explain Rather and this very experienced producer Mary Mapes taking a document that bloggers could figure out very quickly didn't look right. How about maybe just a sort of personal chip on his shoulder with the Bushes? The famous '88 incident with Pappy Bush, H. W. Bush and Dan Rather on a live interview on CBS. Is there personal animosity?

KLEIN: None that I would know of, but that would presume that it's up to Dan to approve, research, write, put together stories and pull them on the air.

GIBSON: That's the lore.

KLEIN: I'm just here to tell you that that's not, unfortunately, the way that that place works some times. There are many levels of checks and balances. And if anything, those checks exist to reign in the superstars. Not just Dan, but when you talk about "60 Minutes," Mike Wallace, no one is more aggressive, right?

GIBSON: Sure, I mean we hear the screening room at "60 Minutes" is actually called the screaming room. Then what explains this? Because there's all those guys like you, the so-called suits, who are sitting in the background, going wait a minute.

KLEIN: It's the only thing that the suits really have to do. That's why I left.

GIBSON: But ultimately then, you'd blame the suits for this?

KLEIN: I'm sure there's plenty enough blame to go around, because if you're misled by a source, that's sort of a shared screw-up. And they're all there, they're all looking at the documents, they're all looking at the facts behind every story. I counted about six different levels to apply the brakes and somehow, one slipped by them.

GIBSON: OK. But, the other thing is, they haven't actually said this is a phony document, although every one else is.

KLEIN: Yes, I think they hold out hope that they're going to get to the real thing and find a real document or get to the truth.

GIBSON: But isn't it kind of lame, I guess, to say, "Oh yeah, well, the document doesn't look too good but the facts are good?

KLEIN: Yes, it's not how you'd want to lead. You'd rather lead with an accurate story. I think at the beginning, they felt they had one. And maybe over time — I don't know, because I don't know work there anymore, so I'm not privy to every thought they have — but just from the outside, it looks like maybe their confidence deteriorated.

GIBSON: Now in your time at CBS, mistakes do happen.

KLEIN: All the time.

GIBSON: This isn't all that unusual, is it?

KLEIN: It happens to everybody, 99 times out of 100, you catch it before it gets on the air.

GIBSON: But the critical factor here is who the mistake was about and when it occurred.

KLEIN: Sure. It could not come at a worse time.

GIBSON: Fifty days before the election.

KLEIN: We all know what happens when you hold a magnifying glass up to the sun. Right? The fire starts underneath. And this is the magnifying glass that they've been under.

GIBSON: By the way, you think Rather survives this?

KLEIN: He's a survivor. This might want make him want to work 10 more years.

GIBSON: Yes, right. OK. Former CBS News Executive Vice President Jonathan Klein.

I'm with you. I don't think this knocks him out of the chair at all.

Thanks very much, appreciate it.

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