CBS heads roll over Bush 'exposé' blunder

Four members of the CBS television network were fired yesterday after an independent investigation into the station's story about George Bush's military service found "myopic zeal" led them to rely on documents later shown to be false. Dan Rather, who narrated the broadcast, has already announced he is stepping down as anchor of the network's evening news.

Four members of the CBS television network were fired yesterday after an independent investigation into the station's story about George Bush's military service found "myopic zeal" led them to rely on documents later shown to be false. Dan Rather, who narrated the broadcast, has already announced he is stepping down as anchor of the network's evening news.

The network fired Mary Mapes, producer of the 60 Minutes report. Also fired were Josh Howard, an executive producer, and his senior deputy along with a senior vice-president. A senior CBS executive, Leslie Moonves, said that because Mr Rather had apologised profusely and already announced his retirement, further action against him was not warranted.

The investigation was launched after CBS was forced to admit that a story it broadcast last September claiming President Bush had received special treatment when he was serving with the Texas Air National Guard during the Vietnam War could no longer be relied upon.

In the 12 days between the initial broadcast of the programme and CBS's statement, a flood of commentators questioned the authenticity of the documents on which the claims were based. CBS claimed one document was from one of Mr Bush's commanders in the Guard, the late Lieutenant Colonel Jerry Killian, who had ordered Mr Bush to take a medical exam which he did not take. It also claimed that Mr Killian felt pressured to "sugarcoat" an evaluation of the young lieutenant. Many pointed out that the documents appeared to have been prepared on a computer not available at the time they were supposed to have been written.

Mr Killian's widow, Marjorie Connell, told reporters she believed the records were "a farce" and her husband did not "keep files". She added: "I don't think there were any documents." It later emerged Ms Mapes had obtained the documents from another retired National Guard officer, Lieutenant Colonel Bill Burkett. CBS said it had been misled by Mr Burkett, a longtime critic of Mr Bush, about the documents' origins.

Yesterday's independent report said that while it could not prove conclusively the documents were forged, it said CBS News failed to authenticate them and falsely claimed an expert had done so.

"These problems were caused primarily by a myopic zeal to be the first news organisation to broadcast what was believed to be a new story," said the report by a panel led by the former US Attorney General Dick Thornburgh and Louis Boccardi, retired head of the Associated Press.

The broadcast and subsequent retraction only further solidified Mr Rather's reputation among right-wing critics as an unreliable liberal out to attack the Bush administration.

It also distracted from valid scrutiny of Mr Bush's record with the Guard at a time when the Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry was being attacked over his record in Vietnam by the largely discredited and Republican-funded group Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. To date, the White House has failed to produce evidence that Mr Bush attended National Guard duties for much of the time that he was working in a political campaign in Oklahoma between 1972-73.

The week after CBS broadcast the story, Yoshi Tsurumi, a Harvard business school professor who taught Mr Bush in the 1970s, told CNN that the future president had once told him that family friends had pulled strings to get him into the Guard.

He said: "He admitted to me that to avoid the Vietnam draft, he had his dad - he said 'dad's friends' - skip him through the long waiting list to get him into the Texas National Guard," he said. "He thought that was a smart thing to do."

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