CBS and Dan Rather found out just how disastrous broad- casting something wrong can be. In the latter part of 2004, the negative side of the obsession to be first to report a story reared its ugly head. Getting the scoop or beating out the competition to get a story on the air is a boost to ratings. The bigger the story, the bigger the reward; but one mistake and one's credibility is lost and the news organizations become the news themselves. In the midst of the 2004 presidential election, CBS jumped on the bandwagon to discredit our commander in chief. Michael Moore's Bush-bashing movie Fahrenheit 911 was a blockbuster at the theaters, and books were being published that cast a disfavoring light on the Vietnam service of Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry. It seemed that the ratings would improve if some dirt could be pulled up on either of the candidates' military records.
60 Minutes and its spin-offs are considered the mothers of "reliable" reporting. Therefore, when Rather reported on September 8, 2004, that he had documents and interviews providing incontrovertible evidence that George W. Bush had received special treatment and did not complete his service in the Texas Air National Guard because of family political connections, people believed it to be true. The next day, all hell broke loose.
Other media giants and several watchdog groups attacked CBS and Rather, refuting the credibility of the interviews and the documents the report was taken from. But Rather stood his ground and was adamant at times, arrogantly dismissing all accusations. Some call CBS's stand a cover-up, others just poor judgment. Whatever you want to call it, it lasted about a week and ended with a public apology from Rather. CBS had to come clean and admit that the documents used in the report to discredit the president's military career were most likely false. The media had turned on one of its own, and CBS appointed an independent panel to figure out just what went wrong.
It was a good show on CBS's part. They brought in some big hitters like Richard Thornburgh, former attorney general for presidents Reagan and Senior Bush. After months of speculation from everyone in the media, CBS announced, in a press release of all things, that they fired four top executives to whom they assigned the blame. Rather announced he would be stepping down from the anchor desk. CBS turned out a little tarnished, the news media overall is a little less trusted, and the ratings war continues full steam ahead.
One of the four executives forced to leave CBS was a top news journalist and someone for whom I have a great deal of respect. Betsy West was responsible for bringing me into ABC years ago. She is one of the most professional people I know and has always been well respected in the business. I learned a great deal from her on how to present stories that were fair and accurate. I am certain that Betsy was a victim of circumstances and had to take the fall with the others. Unfortunately, that is the nature of the business -- a career of great journalism and integrity washed away by the overzealous drive of others to get a story on the air.