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Investigator says CBS reportshouldn't stain Rather's career

Louis D. Boccardi, who co-authored the postmortem report on last September's flawed ''60 Minutes Wednesday" story on President Bush's military record, suggested yesterday that Dan Rather deserves better than to have his entire legacy tangled up in that one story.

''I think it is one aspect of a long and quite accomplished career, and I guess the fair journalist in me would like to position it that way," said Boccardi, who conducted the investigation at the request of CBS with former US Attorney General Dick Thornburgh. Boccardi was in the Boston area yesterday to give a talk at Tufts University's Fletcher School.

Rather left the CBS anchor chair last week after 24 years in the job, and four other staffers at the network lost their jobs after the Thornburgh-Boccardi report was released Jan. 10. Boccardi, the retired president of The Associated Press, declined to comment specifically on the personnel moves at CBS that were triggered by his report. But in an interview with the Globe, he did speak in general terms about Rather and about his own newfound role as a journalistic clean-up man.

The 224-page report on the ''60 Minutes Wednesday" story -- a broadcast that relied on documents of dubious authenticity to suggest Bush failed to meet National Guard standards and received preferential treatment -- accused CBS of being driven by ''a myopic zeal" to get the story first. It led to upheaval inside CBS News, fueled critics who have accused CBS of liberal bias, and led to speculation that the timing of Rather's departure was linked to the episode.

It wasn't the first time Boccardi has been called on to investigate a major media malfunction. In 2003, The New York Times asked him to help determine what had gone wrong after the discovery that reporter Jayson Blair had fabricated and plagiarized in numerous stories.

Boccardi said he never sought a role as a journalistic Columbo. ''Really, it's not a career I want. One of my sons has called me 'journo cop,' " he said, explaining that poking through a media wreckage is tough. ''Neither of these [cases] was easy. You look pain in the face. That's not easy to see people suffer that way. So many of the people we talked to were incredulous. . . . That was not pleasant work."

While the ''60 Minutes Wednesday" report constituted an indictment of CBS, the authors were unable to draw firm conclusions in two crucial areas. The report said the authors ''cannot conclude" political bias played a part in the broadcast of the story and were unable to determine with ''absolute certainty" whether the crucial documents were forgeries.

''We said we would not make the same mistake the program made, which was to make an assertion and, when asked to prove it, be unable to do so," Boccardi said.

When it came to bias, Boccardi said the investigators were not prepared to assign motive to the CBS journalists. ''It wasn't like there were these crazy biased liberal people at CBS alone after the story," he added. ''There were other people after the story. . . . We didn't feel we could prove [bias]. Now that's upset a lot of people." In the case of the documents, Boccardi acknowledged that ''there are many, many reasons to doubt that they're authentic." But he said solid proof is lacking.

Some critics have complained about the lack of definitive findings in the report. In the April 7 issue of The New York Review of Books that is already posted online, James C. Goodale, a former general counsel of The New York Times, wrote: ''Lost in the commotion over the authenticity of the documents is that the underlying facts of Rather's '60 Minutes' report are substantially true." Boccardi characterizes that argument as ''never mind the documents, the content's true."

If critics come with the turf, the man making a second career as ''journo cop" stands by his work.

''Did I think we could [produce] 224 pages to which no controversies would attach? No, I'm not that naive," he said. ''But I think our report is clear, fair, and it answers the question we set out to answer, which was, 'How did this happen?' "

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