Black Days at Black Rock

Photo: AP

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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At around 1 P.M., the show’s producers—along with Hewitt and several 60 Minutes correspondents—turned up with bottles of champagne to toast the fallen news executive. “This is the worst thing I’ve ever seen,” Hewitt declared, “in 55 years of working for CBS News.”

Soon afterward, boxes of personal effects in tow, Howard left the 60 Minutes offices for the last time in his life.In the aftermath of that day’s traumatic events, there remains a strong sentiment among many CBS News insiders that the punishments don’t fit the crimes—and that those most responsible have gotten off far too lightly. Much internal anger has been directed at Leslie Moonves, the chairman of CBS and co-CEO of its parent company, Viacom. It was Moonves, after all, who spared Heyward from being fired and instead removed West, Howard, Murphy, and the story’s producer, Mary Mapes, from their jobs. And now Moonves is personally overseeing the news division’s makeover of its last-place CBS Evening News, which will be without a permanent anchor at 6:30 P.M. on Thursday, March 10, for the first time since CBS News began a nightly fifteen-minute newscast in 1948.

Heyward has reportedly told associates that he came “this close” to being fired by Moonves himself, supposedly holding his thumb and index finger less than an inch apart. Insiders speculate that he will remain in the job at least for a matter of months; at the moment, there’s no logical alternative. Moonves isn’t likely to reach outside the company at such a fractious time, and no strong internal candidates have emerged.

“I’m here to put a human face on today’s sad events,” the CBS News president saidsolemnly. “Then why didn’t youget a human being to come over here and do it?” oneproducer was heard to mutter.

But the fact is that Moonves has never gotten much in the way of inspired ideas from Heyward, known among CBS producers and executives for his “tin eye”—his lack of skill at spotting and developing on-air talent. In a decade at CBS News, he has never found anyone with the star quality to rival that of Katie Couric at NBC or Diane Sawyer at ABC. Instead, his track record includes a $25 million, five-year deal in 1997 to lure Bryant Gumbel from NBC, and his hiring of such illustrious television talents as former U.S. representative Susan Molinari and MTV correspondent Alison Stewart.

But Heyward does have one crucial gift: He has proved himself an adept budget-cutter, reducing the overhead at CBS News so that profit margins remain high. The lack of stars has saved CBS News hundreds of millions of dollars, in contrast to ABC and NBC, whose bloated star contracts cut deeply into potential profits. Heyward delivers substantially to the network’s bottom line, and for that he has been richly rewarded. Some at CBS remain particularly upset by Rather’s conduct, both before and after the story aired. The anchorman lent his enormous credibility to the story, and seemed to have pushed his normally sharp reportorial instincts aside to get it on the air. The vague public statement from Rather that followed the commission’s findings failed to contain any apology, and he has continued to defend the piece despite ample reason to doubt it.

Much has been made of Rather’s failure to see the piece before it aired, but that fact isn’t very meaningful; he’d read multiple drafts of the script for the story (written by producer Mapes), done most of the interviews, and had a thorough knowledge of the story’s content and point of view. He was hardly the uninformed mouthpiece portrayed in the media.

Rather knew full well the story’s implications for the presidential election then only two months away. The anchorman’s experience at going after sitting presidents is well known, as is his dogged pursuit of tough assignments. But Rather’s reputation as a Bush hater, true or not, has allowed journalists to wonder whether Rather helped rush the story on the air partly for political reasons. “Elections have consequences,” the anchorman had been heard to mutter around the CBS News hallways last year, an apparent reference to his feelings about the crucial importance of replacing Bush this past November.

One fascinating, largely overlooked paragraph in the commission’s report strongly supports the theory that Rather actively pushed the story through without adequate concern for its factual basis. While Rather told the commission that he warned Heyward of the story’s “radioactive” nature, Heyward denied to the commission that Rather ever said such a thing. Indeed, Heyward—once Rather’s executive producer at the Evening News—told the panel that when he warned Rather, the weekend before the story aired, to make certain the documents were real, Rather replied simply: “Of course.” In a later conversation, Heyward recalled Rather’s saying he did not want to “lose the exclusive.” Heyward recalled getting the impression from Rather that they were trying to beat another news outlet to the “scoop.”

“Should Dan resign for his part in this story? Yes,” says one CBS News executive. “Will he? No. It’s just not his style.” It’s unclear from the commission report who bears the responsibility for the network’s ultimately foolish hang-tough strategy after the story aired, but some CBS News producers and executives increasingly suspect that Rather was one prime force behind it. (Others, such as Gil Schwartz, CBS’s executive vice-president for communications, and Jim Murphy, the executive producer of the CBS Evening News, more sensibly argued for new reporting in the controversy’s immediate wake.) Rather has remained intensely loyal to his disgraced producer Mary Mapes, but those around him feel his loyalties should have been to the truth. “The producer lied,” one longtime Rather producer told me in an unsolicited, not-for-attribution e-mail, angry that other innocent people had been wrongly punished for Mapes’s transgressions. But the commission’s report showed that it was the considerable power of Rather—in addition to Mapes—that helped lead Howard, West, and others to trust the reporting on the National Guard story in ways they now must deeply regret.

The commission itself has also come under attack, largely by supporters of those punished after its findings were released. None of those involved in the CBS panel—retired Associated Press executive Louis Boccardi, former U.S. attorney general Richard Thornburgh, and lawyers from the firm of Kirkpatrick & Lockhart Nicholson Graham—had any direct experience with investigative journalism. The commission’s interviews were conducted on the nineteenth floor of “Black Rock,” the CBS corporate headquarters on West 52nd Street, a short walk from the supersize office of Leslie Moonves. No tape recordings were made. The two commissioners and lawyers scribbled handwritten notes on the proceedings—when they were in the room, that is. At various times, either Boccardi or Thornburgh were said to be absent from interviews with witnesses. It seemed to the panel’s critics an oddly casual approach for a commission with a mandate to investigate unscrupulous journalistic practices. Moonves’s recent public comments suggest no love for Rather, the public face of this public-relations disaster. At the Television Critics Association meetings in Los Angeles two weeks ago, Moonves alluded to Rather in his harsh reference to the “antiquated” single-anchor, “voice of God” evening-news format. In a recent New York Times interview, the network chief mentioned only Rather’s future role on the Wednesday edition of 60 Minutes, and at the same time speculated openly about the possibility of canceling that show in May. Those comments contradicted the longstanding expectation of many close to Rather, who assumed that his contract guaranteed him a spot on the more prestigious Sunday edition of 60 Minutes. “The correspondents at the Sunday show don’t want Rather on their show, and Moonves doesn’t seem to want him there either,” says one CBS News executive. Others suggest that Rather will work primarily on the Wednesday show to help save it from cancellation, out of loyalty to the broadcast. The confusion over Rather’s future could create an awkward situation if Rather—a huge 60 Minutes star from 1975 to 1981—ever wanted to return full time to his Sunday-night roots. He is said to be extremely fond of Jeff Fager, who runs that show, but no one knows whether Fager will make room.

Fager, a respected, confident producer with a formidable track record—he ran the CBS Evening News when it reached No. 1 in the ratings, and developed the Wednesday 60 Minutes into a solid journalistic enterprise—has, remarkably, managed to remain unscathed by events at his former show. Now that he has been put back in charge of the Wednesday 60 Minutes, Fager has been killing so many stories commissioned by Josh Howard— including a Dan Rather piece on the AARP—that one producer referred to it as a “Stalinist purge.” He has been said to warn producers away from “dark” stories, in the hopes of saving 60 Minutes Wednesday from cancellation.

Fager would seem a logical long-term candidate to be president of CBS News. But Fager has told people he doesn’t want the job, which would probably mean both a cut in salary and an increase in workload. Fager’s resilience in the midst of so much turmoil has earned its own title: Fager World. “It’s always raining gold coins in Fager World,” a top CBS News executive observed. “Nothing ever goes wrong.” One producer added that in Fager World, “everyone’s drinking champagne and eating shrimp cocktails. It’s a magical place.”

Back in the real world, the future is murkier than ever, with Moonves’s blithe utterances concealing the fact that there is no plan for the future of CBS News. Remarkably, Heyward has reportedly yet to suggest any specific names to Moonves as a possible Rather replacement. Discussions thus far have centered solely on possible changes to the show’s structure. And even those conversations have reportedly yet to coalesce around any single approach, leaving Moonves with little to tell reporters at his recent press conference. Pressed by the angry mob of TV critics and correspondents, Moonves finally tossed out the possibility of a multi-anchor format. (Those offhand comments resulted in newspaper stories suggesting, incorrectly, that Moonves had a specific plan in mind.) He even allowed reporters to speculate, by his studied non-denials, that he might be considering comedian Jon Stewart for an evening-news role.

But CBS News executives insist that Moonves has no plans to put Stewart on the Evening News. If anything, Stewart is considered a more likely candidate to replace Andy Rooney as a commentator on 60 Minutes if the 85-year-old essayist ever retires. Moonves was only riffing; he needs Heyward to come up with a serious plan he can sell to the affiliates—something sexy. He’s a former actor who has far more passion for the entertainment division than news. He just wants it to be something he can announce, without embarrassment, to reporters and affiliates anxious for change. Moonves calculated that by removing four top journalists from their jobs at CBS News, he’d be perceived as a decisive executive unafraid to punish those who jeopardized the news division’s reputation. In the short run, his strategy worked; front-page stories around the country proclaimed that CBS News had cleaned up its mess. But in the weeks that followed, it has become clear that Moonves failed to comprehend or address the more subtle truths revealed in the investigation. He neglected to consider that Betsy West, Heyward’s deputy for seven years, would never do anything not mandated by her boss—and that most of their daily contact was verbal, not through e-mail, rendering Heyward’s written posture of outrage relatively meaningless. He failed to credit Josh Howard’s gutsy e-mail proposing a public admission of a possible mistake less than 48 hours after the story aired.

But most important, Moonves forgot to administer justice according to that ancient Greek proverb: The fish stinks from the head.

Black Days at Black Rock