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Black Days at Black Rock

Inside CBS News, the rage over the handling of the National Guard fiasco only deepens. And does Les Moonves really have a plan for replacing Dan Rather?


At 7:30 on the morning of January 10—less than three hours before CBS would release the explosive 224-page report of the commission investigating the discredited September 8, 2004, 60 Minutes Wednesday report on President Bush’s National Guard record—Betsy West was summoned into the office of CBS News president Andrew Heyward for a meeting scheduled hastily the night before. West, a trusted confidante of Heyward’s since her arrival in 1998 as a vice president to oversee prime-time programming, had been a central player in the drama over the Dan Rather 60 Minutes piece that purported to reveal new documents damaging to Bush’s service record. A half-hour later, Josh Howard, a 23-year CBS News veteran and executive producer of 60 Minutes Wednesday, arrived for his own emergency session. Howard had been a friend of Heyward’s ever since the two worked together in the early eighties at Channel 2 News. With his salt-and-pepper hair and bushy mustache, Howard even bore an uncanny resemblance to his longtime colleague.

During their brief meetings in Heyward’s ground-floor office in the converted milk barn that houses CBS News on West 57th Street, West and Howard (and, later, Howard’s deputy Mary Murphy) were told that they were being relieved of their duties, effective immediately, and were being asked to resign. (The details of these events, and all of what follows, come from interviews with several high-level sources within CBS News and confidants of the principal characters, who themselves declined to comment for this story; out of concern for their own careers, all requested anonymity.) It was now less than two hours before the corporate-news release that would result in a firestorm of negative publicity for the network. West, Howard, and Murphy were asked to turn in their corporate credit cards and network identification right away and clear out of their offices by that afternoon. (The three still haven’t resigned, as they work out the details of their departures.)

Howard left Heyward’s office stunned. Of course, he had been expecting some consequences for his role in the story; but up until the moment he entered Heyward’s office that morning, he had been telling colleagues that he believed he would get to keep his job. The amiable, well-liked 50-year-old Howard reasoned that his quarter-century of exemplary service to the company—as a producer on the Evening News and 60 Minutes, and eventually the deputy to legendary 60 Minutes executive producer Don Hewitt—would enable him to preserve his job and some semblance of his professional reputation. He had, after all, been the only one to push for an immediate admission, less than two days after the story aired in September, that the documents at the heart of the National Guard piece might not be real. The news that he would now need to pack his office belongings into boxes and remove them (and himself) from the premises came as a brutal shock.

West went back to her Upper West Side apartment after her session with Heyward. But Howard chose instead to dodge the traffic on West 57th Street and return to the nondescript office building across the street that has housed 60 Minutes since the seventies. At 10:30 a.m., once the public announcement had been made, Howard addressed the 60 Minutes Wednesday staff outside his ninth-floor office. Heyward agreed to cross West 57th Street himself to join Howard; and so, after Howard’s brief, poignant farewell, greeted by tears and an ovation from the crowd of producers and assistants, Heyward stepped forward.

“I’m here to put a human face on today’s sad events,” the CBS News president said solemnly.

“Then why didn’t you get a human being to come over here and do it?” one producer was heard to mutter. Many in the room felt Heyward’s words rang particularly hollow, given that he had not demonstrated any particular humanity by sacrificing the careers of his trusted lieutenants and friends, while managing to preserve his own. When Heyward stopped speaking, he was met with stony silence.

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