NEW YORK – As his anchor career nears its end in March, Dan Rather's (search) reputation as a hard-charging news reporter took some damaging blows from the independent panel that probed CBS' discredited story on President Bush's National Guard service (search).
Three CBS News (search) executives and the producer of last September's "60 Minutes Wednesday" (search) report were fired Monday by CBS chief Leslie Moonves for rushing the story to air and then blindly defending it.
Rather was portrayed by the panel — retired Associated Press chief executive officer Louis D. Boccardi and former GOP Attorney General Dick Thornburgh — as "pushed to the limit" by coverage of the Republican National Convention and Hurricane Frances as final reporting on the story was done.
"He's had a distingusihed television news career, he's one of the largest figures in this industry and this event doesn't erase the other things that he has accomplished," Boccardi said Tuesday in an interview on CBS' "The Early Show."
The veteran anchorman did not see the story before it aired, or appear to have participated in any of the vetting sessions, Boccardi and Thornburgh found.
"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," Moonves said in a statement.
Given Rather's voluntary retirement as anchor, a decision that Rather said was unrelated to the National Guard story, Moonves said he decided not to discipline him.
Rather will move then to "60 Minutes," where Moonves said he will have "more time to concentrate on his reporting."
Rather did not anchor the "CBS Evening News" on Monday, after traveling back from Thailand over the weekend. An aide said he was reading the report and did not have an immediate comment.
It had to have been a particularly painful moment for a man who regards as one of his proudest legacies that he remained a reporter as well as a newsreader in a quarter-century at the anchor desk. He frequently traveled to the sites of major stories, including tsunami-devastated Asia.
Fired were Mary Mapes, the story's producer; Josh Howard, executive producer of "60 Minutes Wednesday"; Howard's top deputy, Mary Murphy; and CBS News senior vice president Betsy West.
Boccardi and Thornburgh's 224-page report catalogued a long series of missteps, essentially saying the report was aired too soon under competitive pressure without being thoroughly checked out. Four months after the report was aired, the panel still couldn't say conclusively whether memos allegedly disparaging Bush's service were real or fake.
"If these experienced vetters knew everything that we know about the circumstances, the authentication, they wouldn't have let the program go on the air," Boccardi said in his interview Tuesday.
Added Thornburgh: "One of the things I think that surprised us was the fact that nobody within the CBS family seemed to have any appreciation of how tricky the process of authenticating documents is."
After compounding its errors by defending the initial report without looking into it further, CBS apologized 12 days later. But the panel found fault with Rather's Sept. 20 apology, saying it placed too much of the blame on the source of the memos and not enough on CBS.
Rather told the panel that he did not think an apology was appropriate, but did it because he was a "team player." Rather also told Boccardi and Thornburgh that he still believes the content of the documents is true.
"It is clear that Rather's joining in the apology given his role as the correspondent on the segment and his status as CBS News' most visible presence was critical to its acceptance," the report said. "The panel finds his comments disavowing the apology to be troubling."
The only glimmer of good news for CBS and Rather — long the target of conservative critics — is that the panel said it had found no evidence of political bias. But it said it was inappropriate for Mapes to have contacted the Kerry campaign at the behest of her source.
"We can't prove that Mapes or Dan Rather did this thing in order to hurt President Bush," Boccardi said. "If you can't prove it — and maybe in another way the lesson of the Sept. 8 report is, don't say it."
As predicted by Thornburgh, however, that conclusion did not quiet political criticism of CBS News.
"Such error layered upon error can only happen when there is a rigid political orthodoxy that not only does not encourage dissent, it does not even recognized that dissent might exist," said Michael Paranzino, founder of a Web log encouraging a boycott of CBS.
Along with Rather, CBS News President Andrew Heyward emerged from the independent review with no discipline from Moonves.
Rich Hanley, director of graduate programs at Quinnipiac University's School of Communications, said the failure to hold Heyward and Rather accountable for these mistakes is "astonishing."
But Moonves, in an interview, said it was not Heyward's job to vet individual sources or material.
"Andrew gave explicit directions that just weren't carried out, about not stampeding the project on the air, verifying every syllable ... and making sure everything was buttoned down, and it just didn't happen," Moonves said.
"On that basis, I find Andrew's sin was trusting his lieutenants too much," he said.
Mapes, in a statement, said she was shocked by Moonves' "vitriolic scapegoating." She said the decision to air the story when it did was made by her superiors, including Heyward, and not by her.
"If there was a journalistic crime committed here, it was not by me," she said.