CBS Producer Under Fire
NEW YORK - Sept. 22, 2004 - The fallout from CBS's doomed story about President Bush's National Guard service most endangers a woman few viewers know but who played a key role in two of the biggest television stories of the year.
Mary Mapes, a veteran producer at CBS News, reported most of the National Guard story, including obtaining the documents CBS now says it can't authenticate. She also passed on the phone number of her source, former Texas National Guard officer Bill Burkett, to the Kerry campaign.
Burkett has acknowledged that he lied about the source of the documents, which purported to show lapses in Mr. Bush's Guard service in 1972, when he is known to have missed a physical and transferred to an Alabama unit to work on a campaign there.
Mapes, 48, was described by colleagues on Tuesday as a dogged and talented journalist who made no secret of her liberal political beliefs.
She's only a few months removed from a career-defining highlight. Mapes took a story that had received little attention — the abuse of prisoners by American soldiers in Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison — and unearthed the photos that gave the story 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, who declined through a spokeswoman to talk with The Associated Press, 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.
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."
Rather acknowledged Monday that Burkett didn't come to CBS. The network approached him about the documents, knowing he had been trying for several years to discredit Mr. Bush's military service record, he said.
In a USA Today story, Burkett said he agreed to turn documents impugning Mr. Bush's service — widely considered now to be fake — over to CBS on the condition CBS would help arrange a conversation with the Kerry campaign. Burkett's lawyer, Gabe Quintanilla, said he could not immediately confirm that Tuesday.
CBS acknowledged Mapes passed on Burkett's number to Kerry adviser Joe Lockhart, and Lockhart called him. 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.
It was a lapse in journalistic ethics if true, 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."
It's particularly damaging when news coverage is being scrutinized by both sides of a bitter political divide, said Frank Sesno, former CNN Washington bureau chief and professor at George Mason University. Even before this story, Rather and CBS News were targets of groups concerned about an anti-Republican bias in the media.
The Lockhart contact "is going to cast more doubt on not just the practices, but the motives behind the story," Sesno said.
"She's done many, many solid stories in her career," Fager said. "How this went so horribly wrong is a mystery to many of us and I look forward to hearing the details."