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Target: Mapes

The same crusading and risk-taking that doomed producer Mary Mapes on the National Guard story led to CBS's triumph on Abu Ghraib. Is her sin really worthy of a scandal?


The sad thing about not being a round-the-clock celebrity is that when you do have the misfortune to be thrust into the public eye, there is rarely a photograph around that makes you look good. So it is with Mary Mapes, the producer of both the ill-fated, much-analyzed CBS broadcast that's been gleefully christened Memogate and of the initial TV report about Abu Ghraib, a triumph of investigative journalism. Almost every story used a photo of Mapes walking out of a Texas courthouse where she had been fending off efforts to force her to turn over CBS tapes and transcripts. She looks drawn, her eyes adjusting to the light, flinching from the unexpected cameras. Stripped of its context, it raises all the wrong questions—a woman in black with the faint outline of a policeman standing behind her, tired and unsmiling, suspect, a bit reminiscent of those unfortunates caught in a classic 60 Minutes ambush.

For whom does the clock tick? It ticks for thee.

Investigated by an uncountable number of media organizations and a million online sleuths, and now with CBS’s own 224-plus-50-exhibits-and-appendices report by a former attorney general, Memogate is for investigative journalism the inverse of Watergate. In an era in which the prestige of the investigative reporting on which 60 Minutes built its franchise has markedly declined, the document scandal has given those who distrust the press one more reason to watch Fox News. Dan Rather, his star producer, and CBS’s senior news executives got snookered by forgeries that look nothing like any other papers of the time period, put together by someone who didn’t even bother to type them on an actual typewriter. That’s still the most difficult fact to come to terms with. But seen in the context of Abu Ghraib and other stories Mapes had worked on over the preceding months, the psychology behind Mapes’s mistakes—the master narrative that drove Mapes’s reporting, the willingness to trust in the unlikeliest of sources—becomes easier to understand.

The story behind CBS’s Abu Ghraib newscast has been examined in the press far, far less than the story of the Bush documents. And it is hard to imagine any narratives that are more different. It’s even harder, at this juncture, to see Abu Ghraib as anything but a story of sadistic guards who tortured the prisoners in their charge in ways that have caused worldwide revulsion. And yet to look at the history of the Abu Ghraib story, as well as a later CBS story about prisoner abuse at Iraq’s Camp Bucca, is to see one surprisingly similar narrative thread: Both the Abu Ghraib story and the story of Bush’s National Guard files started as narratives of the military’s punishing the lower ranks while protecting the privileged and well connected.

Credit for breaking the Abu Ghraib story is generally given jointly to CBS and The New Yorker’s Seymour Hersh. Both Hersh and Mary Mapes, however, came to the story through the same source: a Virginia-based former Marine lieutenant colonel named Roger Charles, then working as a freelance investigator and producer for CBS. Charles had also been working with David Hackworth, a onetime Vietnam officer turned author and syndicated columnist, at an advocacy organization called Soldiers for the Truth, started by Hackworth (Charles is now its president).

Rumors of American soldiers torturing prisoners in Iraq had floated around the news world for months before the Abu Ghraib story broke. In fact, there were hints of this even in official military communiqués. A CBS producer, Dana Roberson, had gotten word from a source in Kuwait that the story went deeper than the military’s routine public statements. Roberson and Mapes traveled to Kuwait to check out the rumors, but had come up empty.

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