Last year the world of broadcast news was rocked when Dan Rather stepped down as CBS' evening news anchor after questions emerged over a network report on President Bush's National Guard service. The documents used in a segment of "60 Minutes II" were discredited; segment producer Mary Mapes' impressive career came crashing down -- she was fired from the network.
In a statement CBS News said: "Mary Mapes' actions damaged CBS News as an organization and brought pain to many colleagues with whom she worked. As always, revisionist history must be tested against the facts."
Mapes thinks otherwise. In the upcoming issue of "Vanity Fair," she argues that the campaign to discredit the story she produced was little more than a political slime-job organized by Bush backers.
"I think I'm somebody who got fired for trying to do their job in a difficult atmosphere," she said. "I don't think I committed bad journalism, I really don't. I don't think I've done a good job for 25 years, woke up on the morning of September 8th and decided to commit professional hare kare."
Her book, "Truth and Duty: The Press, the President, and the Privilege of Power" (St. Martin's Press), details the fallout from the story and how Mapes has struggled to come to terms with the end of her illustrious career.
Read an excerpt of the book below.
I woke up smiling on September 9, 2004.
My story on George W. Bush's Guard service had run on "60 Minutes" the night before and I felt it had been a solid piece. We had worked under tremendous pressure because of the short time frame and the explosive content, but we'd made our deadline and, most important, we'd made news.
I was confident in my work and marveled once again at the teamwork and devotion of so many people at "60 Minutes." They really knew how to pull together to get a story on the air. I was also deeply proud of CBS News for having the guts to air a provocative story on a controversial part of the president's past.
By the end of the day, all of that would change. By the end of the month, I would be barred from doing my job and under investigation. By the end of the year, my long career at CBS News would essentially be over, after a long, excruciating, and very public beating.
But on this day, all that was unimaginable. I was just anxious to get into the office and get the reaction to the story. I raced to the hotel room door and pulled The New York Times and USA Today off the floor, curled up on the sofa, and read the front-page coverage of our story. Online, I checked The Washington Post and saw that there, too, it was front-page material.
It deserved to be, for a number of reasons.
Dan Rather and I had aired the first-ever interview with former Texas lieutenant governor Ben Barnes on his role in helping Bush get into the Texas Air National Guard. Getting Barnes to say yes had taken five years and I thought his interview was a home run. Finally, there were on-the-record, honest, straight-ahead answers from a man who intimately knew the ins and outs of the way Texas politics and privilege worked in the state National Guard units during the Vietnam War. Ben Barnes's version of events was crucial to understanding a significant chapter in President Bush's life from thirty years ago, an important key to unlocking the questions many Americans had about the man in the White House.
What had George W. Bush done during the volatile Vietnam years? Who was he back then, really? Was he a young man who volunteered to pilot fighter jets off the country's coastline, a brave young flier ready and willing to risk his life in the skies over Vietnam?
Or was George W. Bush -- like so many well-connected young men in the Vietnam era -- simply doing whatever he could to avoid fighting or flying anywhere near the jungles of Southeast Asia? Did he complete his service to the National Guard or walk away without looking back simply because his family's status meant that he could?
Did he do his duty? Did he tell the truth?
Our story on September 8, 2004 also presented never-before-seen documents purportedly written in 1972 by Bush's then-commander, Lt. Col. Jerry B. Killian. Killian had died in 1984 and his important testimony on Bush's service had not been part of all the years of debate that had raged over whether or not the president had fulfilled his Guard duties.
These documents appeared to show that Killian had not approved of Bush's departure from the Guard in 1972 to work on a Senate campaign for Republican Roy Blunt in Alabama. They showed that Killian had ordered Bush to take a physical that was never completed and that Killian had been pressured by his higher-ups to write better reports on Bush than were merited by the future president's performance. The Killian memos, as they came to be called, turned on its head the version of George W. Bush's Guard career that the White House had presented. These new memos made Bush look like a slacker, not an ace pilot.
I had spent weeks trying to get these pieces of paper and every waking hour since I had received them vetting each document for factual errors or red flags.
I worked to compare the new memos with the official documents I had received since 1999. They meshed in ways large and small.
Furthermore, the content, the essential truth of the story contained in the memos, had been corroborated by Killian's commander general Bobby Hodges in a phone conversation two days before the story aired. On September 6, he had said the memos reflected Killian's feelings at the time and this was what he remembered about how Killian had handled Bush's departure from the Guard.
We had a senior document analyst named Marcel Matley fly to New York to look at all the documents we had, the official documents that had been previously released by the White House as well as the "new" ones. After examining them for hours, blowing up signatures and comparing curves, strokes, and dots, he gave his best opinion on their authenticity. Since the documents were copies, not originals, he could not offer the 100 percent assurance that came by testing the ink or the paper.
But he said he saw nothing in the typeface or format to indicate the memos had been doctored or not produced at the time they were alleged to have been. The analyst also vouched for the Killian signatures after comparing them with more than a dozen other Killian signatures we had on the photocopied official documents. A second analyst, Jim Pierce, agreed after examining two of the Killian documents and comparing them to the official records and signatures.
I felt that I was in the clear, that I had done my job, and that the story met the high standards demanded by "60 Minutes."
I called my husband and son to say good morning, just as I had done every morning in all the years past when I was out of town. As always, my husband told me my work had looked great and my seven-year-old boy told me to come home as fast as I could and to bring him a surprise. It was a regular ritual.
I was staying at my favorite hotel home away from home, The Pierre, a grand old New York pile that is stuffy and high-priced. Without my CBS discount, I never would have seen the inside of the place.
The Pierre is also quiet, close to the office, and sweetly old-fashioned. Old-fashioned enough that Kitty Carlisle apparently still goes there often for "highballs," according to the hotel bartender, along with a male friend and their respective nurses. I once ran into her in the ladies' room, looking like she had just stepped off the set of "To Tell the Truth," mink capelet and all.
The elevator operators and doormen were older, too, and they were kind, always looking out for me. They knew me because of my regular visits and comfortingly clucked over how hard I was working when I stayed there.
On this trip, they had seen me leaving very early and coming in very late for the past few days. I had been staggering out to catch a cab to work by 9 a.m. and arriving back exhausted about 3 a.m. after the bar had closed and the hotel was buttoning up for the night. By the time I arrived, there was often no one in the lobby except a bellman, me, and perhaps a gaudily dressed female guest or two.
I often wondered what those women thought I did for a living. Disheveled and limping, straggling along with a heavy briefcase full of files, I entered the hotel lobby each night looking like a failing hooker for that small subset of customers who preferred exhausted, unkempt professional women.
On this morning, though, my energy was back. I was exhilarated by another success.
When I got to work, my mood was reinforced. I made rounds to thank the editors who had worked so hard to get the story put together in time for air. Their jobs are not for the faint of heart or for people who panic when time is short or the workload is overwhelming.
I ran into other producers and correspondents and collected hugs and kisses and congratulations. There were jokes about what we would do as a follow-up. Dan and I had broken the Abu Ghraib story in late April. Now this. My team, the people at "60 Minutes," and Dan all felt like we were on a roll.
The new executive producer of "60 Minutes Wednesday," Josh Howard, gave me a hug and congratulations, following up on a flattering e-mail he had sent me around midnight the night before: "I was just sitting here thinking about how amazing you are. I'm buckled in, ready to see where you'll take us next. Let's go!"
There was no hint of what was to come, no whiff of doubt about the work we had all done on the story.
I saw CBS vice president Betsy West standing in the CBS building's eighth-floor lobby, waiting for the slow, unreliable elevators, and we laughed at how awful the previous night had been, how hurried and harried we all had been trying to get the story on. There had been shouting and impatience and flashes of anger. She laughed and said, "That's as close to the sausage making as I ever want to get." I'd told her that we'd all gotten sausage all over us and that was as close as I ever wanted to come to missing my deadline. We both felt good about the story and agreed that it had looked polished on the air, in contrast to the carnage left behind in the editing rooms and the offices where we had done our scripting.
This behind-the-scenes carnage was not particularly unusual in television. For fifteen years at CBS I had pushed back against deadlines to perfect a script, to change a shot, to make a story better. I had never missed a deadline, never put on a story that I did not feel comfortable with.
There was nothing more important to me, or to any of us at "60 Minutes," than getting the story right, no matter how limited the time or how tough the topic. I had a well-earned reputation for being able to "crash," to get a story on quickly and competently.
For whatever reason -- probably because I grew up in a large, loud, distracting family -- I was able to focus when others couldn't. I could keep writing when the room was full of people yelling at the top of their lungs. I was able to think clearly when the clock seemed to be ticking too fast.
The previous year, I had "crashed" an entire hour overnight for "60 Minutes Wednesday." Dan had done interviews with Ron Young and David Williams, the two Apache helicopter pilots who had crashed and been captured in Iraq. Rescued by U.S. Marines, the two men had been pursued by countless reporters and producers for an interview. My wonderful friend and associate producer, Dana Roberson, helped me talk the two pilots into trusting us to tell their story.
Steve Glauber, a veteran "60 Minutes" producer, had worked round the clock, flying to the other side of the world and then back from Kuwait in forty-eight hours, carrying precious videotape. He had done touching and important interviews with the rest of the pilots' unit, men and women who had mourned the two lost airmen after the crash. The unit members had vowed to find their comrades and had flown out on mission after mission wearing headbands with the two pilots' names on them.
We did the interviews with the pilots at two o'clock on Tuesday afternoon. They were great. But now I only had a few hours to script and organize the editing of the broadcast, in order to make it to air the following night. And all of it had to be overseen and approved by Jeff Fager, then the broadcast's executive producer, and his right hand, senior producer Patti Hassler.
With their help and guidance, I was able to get the script done. The editors were phenomenal and put together a beautiful, heart-wrenching, and illuminating hour.
But there had been more than a few furrowed brows. Editor David Rubin had been doing his trademark shrieking down the hall from my office as he cut in pieces of digitized tape. Everyone was dead tired and on a brutal deadline. By airtime, we were all staggering around like the undead. But we had done it. And the next day, we'd had the same kind of tired but happy conversations we were having on September 9.
It was another day of exhausted exultation. I got congratulatory e-mails, phone calls, and pats on the back. Other reporters called repeatedly as they worked to catch up to my story. I was thrilled.
All that changed about 11:00 a.m., when I first started hearing rumbles from some producers at CBS News that a handful of far right Web sites were saying that the documents had been forged.
I was incredulous. That couldn't be possible. Even on the morning the story aired, when we showed the president's people the memos, the White House hadn't attempted to deny the truth of the documents. In fact, the president's spokesman, Dan Bartlett, had claimed that the documents supported their version of events: that then-lieutenant Bush had asked for permission to leave the unit.
Within a few minutes, I was online visiting Web sites I had never heard of before: Free Republic, Little Green Footballs, Power Line. They were hard-core, politically angry, hyperconservative sites loaded with vitriol about Dan Rather and CBS. Our work was being compared to that of Jayson Blair, the discredited New York Times reporter who had fabricated and plagiarized stories.
All these Web sites had extensive write-ups on the documents: on typeface, font style, and peripheral spacing, material that seemed to spring up overnight. It was phenomenal. It had taken our analysts hours of careful work to make comparisons. It seemed that these analysts or commentators -- or whatever they were -- were coming up with long treatises in minutes. They were all linking to one another, creating an echo chamber of outraged agreement.
I was told that the first posting claiming the documents were fakes had gone up on Free Republic before our broadcast was even off the air! How had the Web site even gotten copies of the documents? We hadn't put them online until later. That first entry, posted by a longtime Republican political activist lawyer who used the name "Buckhead," set the tone for what was to come.
There was no analysis of what the documents actually said, no work done to look at the content, no comparison with the official record, no phone calls made to check the facts of the story, nothing beyond a cursory and politically motivated examination of the typeface. That was all they had to attack, but that was enough.
People from around the country, especially those with a harsh political bent, began chiming in on the sites with accounts of their own experience with typewriters in the 1970s. Someone claimed to remember that electric typewriters at the time did not do "superscripts," a small "th" or "st" or some such abbreviation that was lifted higher on the line than the other letters. This was important, because in the Killian memos, the 111th was sometimes typed as the 111th, something that drove the bloggers wild.
Another person claimed there was no peripheral spacing on old typewriters, even though there had been on some of the old official documents.
I remember staring, disheartened and angry, at one posting. "'60 Minutes' is going down," the writer crowed exultantly.
My heart started to pound. There is nothing more frightening for a reporter than the possibility of being wrong, seriously wrong. That is the reason that we checked and rechecked, argued about wording, took care to be certain that the video that accompanied the words didn't create a new and unintended nuance. Being right, being sure, was everything. And right now, on the Internet, it appeared everything was falling apart.
I had a real physical reaction as I read the angry online accounts. It was something between a panic attack, a heart attack, and a nervous breakdown. My palms were sweaty; I gulped and tried to breathe. My heart was pounding like I had become a cartoon character whose heart outline pushes out the front of her shirt with each beat. The little girl in me wanted to crouch and hide behind the door and cry my eyes out.
The longtime reporter in me was pissed off . . . and I hung on to her strength and certainty for dear life. I had never been fundamentally wrong, never been fooled, never been under this kind of attack. I resolved to fight back.
I talked to our document analyst Marcel Matley, now back in San Francisco, who said he had seen some of the comments and dismissed them out of hand. "They aren't even looking at the quality of copies I did," Matley said. He disdained the anonymity of the postings, saying that any real analysts would use their name and credentials. And he pointed out something that would be a huge problem for us in the days ahead: that in the process of downloading, scanning, faxing, and photocopying, some computers, copiers, and faxes changed spacing and subtly altered fonts. He thought that this basic misunderstanding of how documents changed through electronic transmittal was behind the unfounded certainty and ferocity of the attack on the documents.
In retrospect, Matley was right and our story never recovered from this basic misunderstanding. Faxing changes a document in so many ways, large and small, that analyzing a memo that had been faxed -- in some cases not once, but twice -- was virtually impossible. The faxing destroyed the subtle arcs and lines in the letters. The characters bled into each other. The details of how the typed characters failed to line up perfectly inside each word were lost.
And these faxed, scanned, and downloaded documents were the only versions of the memos ever made public. A comparison of one of the documents before faxing and after faxing is in the appendix.
But I thought Matley's belief that a technical misunderstanding was behind the ferocious attack was too good to be true.
I was afraid that this time Matley, who was an experienced document analyst and longtime expert witness, was out of his element. He knew a great deal about documents and signatures. But I knew attack politics.
I knew what we were seeing was not a simple mistake made because of technical differences in the way the documents looked. This was something else, something new and fundamentally frightening. I had never seen this kind of response to any story. This was like rounding a corner in the woods and spotting a new creature, all venom and claws and teeth. You didn't know what it was, but you sure knew it was out to get you.
As I watched the postings pile up and saw the words quickly become more hateful, it dawned on me that I was present at the birth of a political jihad, a movement conceived in radical conservative back rooms, given life in cyberspace, and growing by the minute. It fed on political anger and the deep-seated belief that CBS News was a longtime liberal stronghold out to get the president.
This bias on the part of some viewers had been around for decades. These were people who hadn't forgiven Edward R. Murrow for taking on Joseph McCarthy, people who still referred to CBS as the "Communist Broadcasting System."
That was something a man in rural Texas actually said to me not long after I started at CBS in 1989, when I approached him and asked if he would do a quick interview on a new boom in oil drilling.
"CBS?" he sneered. "Don't you mean the Communist Broadcasting System"? I was dumbfounded.
To these people, there was no such thing as unbiased mainstream reporting, certainly not when it came to criticism of the president, no matter how tepid. To them, there was FOX News and everything else -- and everything else was liberal and unfair.
All the producers and researchers who'd worked on our story were hunched over computers, reading everything they could find. It was not good. We marveled at the just-plain-wrong assertions about superscript or proportional spacing and the overwhelming certainty the bloggers brought to their analysis.
One element of the attack was not at all surprising: the savaging of former Texas lieutenant governor Ben Barnes. He had predicted an all-out assault on his reputation and he had been right, in spades.
While Barnes had never discussed publicly his assistance in getting the president into the Texas Air National Guard, over the years he had often hinted that he'd had a hand in it. He would drop into conversation that a Bush family friend had asked him to help out "young George." Barnes had told people in countless private settings that he remembered being asked to make a phone call on Bush's behalf. But while Barnes would confirm everything off the record and had even testified to it under oath in a convoluted Texas snake pit of a lawsuit involving the state lottery, he had never before sat down, answered questions, and told the story in front of God and a television audience and everybody. Now, he had.
I could see that conservative Web sites were linking to a dossier on Barnes compiled by Republican operatives. It was a devastatingly one-sided account of Barnes's past financial troubles and long-ago political scrapes, along with ancient accusations about Barnes when he had been a Democratic leader in Texas politics.
Barnes had remained an active Democrat all his life and now was working as a fund-raiser for John Kerry as well as a full-time lobbyist in Washington. He'd told Dan Rather and me that if he did the interview with us he could essentially lose his lobbying business. In Washington, D.C., where influence is measured in access, having doors slammed in your face could be the death knell for a lobbyist.
In fact, the fear of a brass-knuckle Republican backlash that demolished people emotionally and financially is what kept Barnes and many others in Texas from speaking out about Bush's military service for years. I had always dismissed that kind of fear, in Barnes and the many others who were reluctant to speak out about the president's Guard years. I thought their worries were overdramatic. I mean, how bad could it be? Sure, there'd be criticism, but having the truth finally out in the open would be worth it.
I was beginning to find out how wrong I was.
Political operatives were having a field day turning Ben Barnes into their latest piñata, and his larger-than-life history was making it easy. He had been a boy wonder in Texas politics until a financial scandal in the early seventies had tainted him -- unfairly, as it turned out. He was investigated, along with a number of other state politicians, for taking bribes in the Sharpstown payola scandal. Sharpstown was a Texas-sized bribery and development scandal that destroyed the careers of a number of once-powerful state politicians, who were accused of handing out political favors in exchange for cash. There were never any charges filed against Barnes, never any case brought against him.
He and former Texas governor John Connally had lost their fortunes together rather spectacularly during the savings and loan bust in the eighties. Furthermore, Barnes had a well-deserved reputation as the life of the party, a glib, funny, overwhelmingly charming man who turned heads, slapped backs, and twisted arms to get what he wanted.
Remember that picture of Lyndon Johnson bending a congressman backward over a desk trying to wrangle a vote? That's what Ben Barnes looks like ordering dinner. He has always been louder than life, a living, breathing caricature of a Texas politician. Now the Republicans were turning over every aspect of his personality, every past action, and recycling them into mud to throw at him and defuse his story.
I felt terrible for him and for his family. He had told us that he worried most about the impact doing the interview would have on his wife and two young daughters. Barnes felt he could take whatever came his way. He was afraid they could not or would not.
I knew Barnes was pretty tough. In fact, he had already survived more near-death political experiences and hardball partisan attacks than most human beings could. That pretty much comes with the territory in Texas politics. If you can't take a hit, can't survive a scandal, can't talk your way out of a corner or dominate the field, you had better get out of the game.
Barnes was an expert at the game. He had been on the scene of countless political and financial implosions. It was his political good fortune to always be the one person who would come staggering out of the building when it blew up. He might be covered with smoke and ash, his clothes ripped and ragged, but he would be alive and he would begin rebuilding his career.
I knew he would be able to make it through again. I didn't know that I would not.
By that afternoon, I had taken dozens of increasingly nervous phone calls from Betsy West and Josh Howard. Both of them were reading the blogs and growing more worried by the moment.
I remember looking at the Drudge Report at about 3:00 p.m. and seeing that the lead was a huge picture of Dan with the headline saying something like "Shaken and Stunned, Rather Hiding in Office." The story went on to link to all the other angry and derisive Web sites running critiques of the documents.
The phone rang and it was Dan. "Mary, someone has just handed me something from the Drudge Report saying that I am all shook up and hiding in my office. I just want you to know that's not true. I'm not worried and I'm not even in my goddammed office."
I knew I could count on Dan. In tough situations, he became "fightin' Dan," someone who told us all to "never back up, never back down, never give up, never give in." I was glad to hear from him and reassured by his reaction to all of it.
Dan told me he was confident in the story and that he was lucky to work with me. He signed off by saying something that had become a shorthand for us over the years: "F-E-A." That was code for "F--- 'Em All," a sentiment that needed to be expressed from time to time in any newsroom. Dan was too much of a gentleman to say the real thing -- at least most of the time. But he knew that when I was under deadline or work pressure I was hard put to find any sentence that couldn't be improved by the liberal use of the "f"-word. At this point, I deeply appreciated the sentiment.
The day continued to deteriorate. I got a stream of tag team phone calls from Josh Howard and Betsy West. They each began with the same ominous words: "Mary, have you seen [fill in the blank]?" It could be the Drudge Report, Power Line, something on FOX News, or a new posting on Little Green Footballs. Or worse yet, "Mary, we've gotten a call from [fill in the blank]." It could be The Washington Post, The New York Times, the New York Post, the Des Moines Register. It felt as though the whole world were reading these obscure blogs and repeating their talking points without questioning them.
When I walked down the hall, I saw groups of people clumped together talking animatedly, then watched as they grew silent when I approached. They'd squeak out a, "Hi, Mary," as I trudged dejectedly past. It was sort of the journalistic equivalent of having toilet paper stuck to your shoe. I can't say that I blamed them or that I would have behaved any differently in their positions. Nothing like this had ever happened before to me or to anyone I knew of. What is journalistic etiquette for watching someone's story and career go up in flames? Everyone knew what was going on. Everyone knew it was going very badly. No one knew what to say.
Some people pitched in and tried to help bail the water out of our sinking ship. I was touched by producer David Gelber's ideas and energy in trying to help. Steve Glauber lent moral support. People would appear in the office door and commiserate. Assistant producers offered to open up Andy Rooney's office and let us look at his collection of old typewriters. Everyone was desperate or depressed -- or both.
Dan came over after the CBS Evening News and we talked about the need to do a story rebutting the attacks the following night. My team of researcher, associate producers, and assistants and I gathered information on IBM typewriters, on font styles, on peripheral spacing. We got lists of new document and computer analysts together. We arranged to do an on-camera interview with Marcel Matley, our original document examiner.
I left the building late, with Roger Charles, the tenderhearted military consultant who had worked with me for years. Also on hand: Mike Smith, a dogged young researcher from Austin, Texas, who had followed the Bush-Guard story for years.
If our demeanor the night before had been triumphant, on September 9 we were downright tragic. The three of us dragged our sad selves into the hotel and plopped down in the bar like limp hankies. I was too tense to enjoy any small talk, but that has never actually stopped me from talking. So I continued to bray at Mike and Roger like a wounded wildebeest.
I was incredulous that the mainstream press -- a group I'd been a part of for nearly twenty-five years and thought I knew -- was falling for the blogs' critiques. I was shocked at the ferocity of the attack. I was terrified at CBS's lack of preparedness in defending us. I was furious at the unrelenting attacks on Dan. And I was helpless to do anything about any of it.
We vowed to work ourselves into a frenzy doing a great report on the Evening News the next night . . . and we did. We put on a strong and reasoned defense. Maybe that was the problem. The people who had begun the attack on us were not interested in reason, other than the reason behind the whole assault -- politics.
Dan ended the report by asking that the president answer the longtime questions about his service in the National Guard. No one listened. No one wanted to ask the president anything other than what he thought about the CBS report. Everyone in the media wanted to cover CBS, not the National Guard story.
Our report didn't make a whit of difference. Nothing we did mattered. We were shouting into a wind tunnel.
Copyright © 2005 by Mary Mapes