Mary Mapes: Portrait of Media Bias
An article in Vanity Fair by fired CBS producer Mary Mapes shows just how dangerous an absence of objectivity can be in a journalist, and exposes a state of mind that makes conservative critics’ most fevered accusations of media bias look plausible.
The piece is a taste of what we have to look forward to in her soon-to-be-published book, “Truth and Duty.” Incredibly Mapes, who produced the discredited National Guard memorandums segment that cut short Dan Rather’s reign on the CBS News, still claims that her story was legitimate. She disputes the nearly universal verdict that the National Guard documents she relied upon to show George W. Bush was AWOL during a portion of his Guard duty was a fake, and likens the attacks on her and Rather to “McCarthyism.” Mapes condemns the bloggers who revealed the fairly obvious problems with the memo, and the CBS executives who retracted the story. She ridicules former Attorney General Dick Thornburgh, one of the leaders of the CBS probe into how her segment made it to the airwaves without being properly checked for fairness and accuracy. To Mapes, objections to her story were just political effective pressure tactics applied by allies of the Republicans.
Remember: this woman, so startlingly unobjective politically, was a prized veteran producer for “60 Minutes.” Network news journalism is supposed to be motivated by a desire to inform and governed by professional neutrality, yet Mapes was undeniably so determined to mount a response to what she (and many others, liberal and conservative alike) felt were unfair attacks by the Swift Boat Veterans on John Kerry’s military record that she violated core ethical standards. She thrust CBS into partisan politics. She convinced herself and the similarly inclined Rather that an old and ambiguous story that was no longer relevant (once someone has served as Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Services, the 30 year old record of his National Guard service is not exactly a burning issue) should be trumpeted as a scandalous scoop in the final weeks of the presidential campaign. She wanted to influence the election results, and was willing to use a questionable document provided by an unreliable source (former National Guard official Bill Burkett, who subsequently admitted lying about the source of the documents he gave Mapes) to do it. She even contacted the Kerry campaign so that it could deal with Burkett directly.
And still, Mary Mapes doesn’t see anything wrong with her conduct. She has company in this: George Clooney, promoting his film “Good Night and Good Luck” on the Charley Rose Show, described his discussions with Rather about the ill-fated segment and reported that he felt it was “the right story but the wrong source.” But by definition, a story that’s truly “right” must have a right source before it can be called “right.” How do Rather and Clooney know, in the absence of a good source, that the story was right? Simple: like Mapes, it was right because they wanted it to be right. It was right because they thought it could defeat George W. Bush.
At least Rather and Clooney, unlike Mapes, admit that it was the “wrong source.”
Flat-earth defenders of objectivity in network news broadcasting should be forced to read Mapes’ Vanity Fair tirade, and reflect on what it signifies: an entrenched attitude of self-righteousness and ideological bias in the newsroom that implicitly rejects journalistic ethics, with fairness, accountability and trust the worst victims. One can wish that there was a different result in the presidential election of 2004 and still be grateful that our democratic process wasn’t hijacked by the unforgivable tactics of Mary Mapes.