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'Truth and Duty': a distorted lens

Mapes's account fails to convince

Truth and Duty: The Press, the President, and the Privilege of Power
By Mary Mapes
St. Martin's, 371 pp., $24.95

During 15 years as a CBS producer, Mary Mapes was one of the savviest reporters in television news. She has a string of broadcast exclusives to prove it, including her ''60 Minutes" report in early 2004 that exposed the Abu Ghraib prison scandal. So how did she come to be fired for being the heavy in the worst media miscue in modern presidential-campaign history? That would be the thinly reported Dan Rather exclusive in September 2004, unveiling four memos obtained by Mapes that purported to present fresh evidence that President George W. Bush had shirked his military duty during the early 1970s.

To hear Mapes tell it -- over and over and over again, as if repetition alone could make her case -- her groundbreaking reporting fell victim to an unrelenting attack by ''the radical right and bullying bloggers" directed by the president's own hit man, and to the cowardice under fire of CBS News executives who first disowned the story and then picked an outside panel of gray suits to formally condemn the network's own reporting. And for what reason? Because, Mapes writes, CBS's corporate parent, Viacom, feared that Bush's government would take steps to damage the company's bottom line. To paraphrase Mapes, she is no less a crusader for the First Amendment than those, including Edward R. Murrow, who stood up to Senator Joseph R. McCarthy in the network's formative days.

The cabal aligned against her, Mapes writes, ''cost me my reputation."

The book is unlikely to rehabilitate that reputation. If anything, its self-serving misstatements and deliberate omissions make the book no more defensible than the fatally flawed report that Mapes continues to insist, unpersuasively, was not flawed at all. Even after seeing the controversy through Mapes's distorted prism, the best that one can say in her defense is this: An accomplished reporter allowed her headlong quest for a blockbuster story and her professed disdain for Bush to crowd out the good judgment that should have prompted CBS to put the piece on the shelf, not on the air.

Even for those who believe the four memos that Rather unveiled on Sept. 8, 2004, are genuine, there is no defense for the network's rush to broadcast them with no credible effort to determine either their provenance or authenticity, as the outside panel properly concluded. CBS did neither, at great cost: Mapes fired; three senior news executives forced out; and Rather's long career, in which he excelled at reporting, headed for an ignominious conclusion.

The memos that proved so damaging to CBS were reported -- without qualification -- to have come from the personal files of Lieutenant Colonel Jerry B. Killian, who was Bush's commanding officer in the Texas Air National Guard unit where Bush was an F-102 fighter-interceptor pilot until he was mysteriously grounded 30 months before his flying commitment expired. Long before Mapes obtained the memos, Bush's lackadaisical attitude toward his military obligation had been well documented -- by news accounts that were based on Bush's official military records.

The four memos added some spice, and meat, to a long-simmering dish: Among them, a Killian memo claiming that he had been pressured from above to ''sugar coat" Bush's annual evaluation, and another Killian memo reporting that he had suspended Bush from flight status for ''failure to perform" up to standards. Killian died in 1984.

The CBS report provoked an immediate firestorm, initially from bloggers claiming the memos were forgeries prepared using technology and typefaces unavailable three decades ago. Mapes does a credible job, as have others in the last year, rebutting such claims. But that leaves the debate in limbo, with no one able to prove when the memos were typed -- or who, if not Killian, typed them. Even so, Mapes remains adamant that the memos are genuine.

Mapes's opinion of the bloggers is venomous: ''A digital lynch mob at work," she calls them. ''With political blogging," she explains, ''there is very little gate-keeping, very little vetting of information before it goes out into the ether. For many of the more amateurish sites, the operators don't seem to want any fact-checking." And on and on.

How, one has to wonder, can Mapes be so deaf to the irony in her attack? It was her own amateurish, unvetted reporting that gave the bloggers all the ammunition they needed.

First off, CBS had no evidence that the memos came from Killian's personal files, only the word of the man who passed the memos to Mapes. But that unnamed source was a disgruntled and discredited former Texas National Guard officer, Bill Burkett. In a Bush-bashing book published in early 2004, Houston author James Moore relates, without skepticism, Burkett's bizarre eyewitness account of how embarrassing documents in Bush's military records were destroyed in 1997. When my Globe colleague Michael Rezendes set out to verify Burkett's account, he discovered that Moore had never corroborated the account with Burkett's friend George O. Conn, who according to Burkett had witnessed the purging of the files. Conn told Rezendes that Burkett's account was false.

So what did Mapes do several months later? By her own account, she knew many in the press considered Burkett an ''anti-Bush zealot," his credibility in question. When he gave her the documents, she recounts, he said, ''I'm not vouching for these." So she checked out his credibility -- with Moore. And Moore told her ''that Burkett was 'the real deal, not a liar.' " And just to be sure, Mapes pressed Burkett before the broadcast to tell her who gave him the memos. Who else? His friend Conn, the same man who called Burkett a liar in the February 2004 Globe article. She tried to reach Conn before Rather stepped off the cliff the night of Sept. 8, but couldn't -- because she couldn't get his telephone number.

And yet, she writes: ''I didn't imagine that I was setting myself up for a story that would blow my career to smithereens."

And where, through all this, was Rather? He was tired, overworked, overscheduled. He trusted his longtime producer, when he should have asked an eager CBS News intern to get him archived articles about Burkett. That elemental step would have turned up the Rezendes piece and likely halted the broadcast.

In spite of it all, Mapes is unabashedly unapologetic. After the broadcast, Mapes and Rather stuck by the story. The CBS defense crumbled when Burkett admitted he had lied about getting the documents from Conn. Instead, he said they were handed off to him by someone anonymously. CBS was forced to disown its story.

Still, Mapes hews to her theme, damning her critics for helping to ''sweep away the solid work, the solid story, we had built." The sharp hatchet she wields takes its toll on her former CBS colleagues. She says former CBS News President Andrew Heyward was so gutless that had he been on the Titanic, he would have donned a woman's gown to escape. She delights in recounting details about CBS President Les Moonves's alleged affair. Mapes is so intent on disparaging colleagues troubled by the story that she even picks apart CBS reporter Wyatt Andrews for what he said over a lunch that she says was off the record.

Even saddled with the Titanic analogy, Heyward fares well compared with Bush. Mapes beats him black and blue, from cover to cover, for pretty much everything he has done between his 1968 enlistment in the Texas Air National Guard and his 2003 decision to invade Iraq. In January, when the independent panel, headed by former Attorney General Dick Thornburgh and retired Associated Press chief executive Louis D. Boccardi, released their devastating report, there was one finding that pleased Mapes: The panel members said they could not conclude that political motivations had played a role in the decision to broadcast such thin gruel.

Had the panel awaited the arrival of Mapes's book, they might well have concluded otherwise.

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