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.
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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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Then, in researching the rumors of prisoner abuse for Mapes, Charles posted a notice on SFTT’s online bulletin board asking any soldiers with information to come forward. Charles’s notice was answered by a former Air Force master sergeant named Bill Lawson, who quickly hit it off with Charles (“We’re both career military, we’re both hillbillies, and we kind of clicked,” Charles says). Lawson’s nephew, the now somewhat infamous Staff Sergeant Ivan “Chip” Frederick II, was being charged with abusing prisoners at Abu Ghraib. Lawson believed that his nephew was being railroaded for following orders from his superiors at a prison run amok. Lawson, who had already heard there were photos, told his story to Charles, who then brought it to Mapes, and, separately, to Hersh. Within days, both Hersh and Mapes had tracked down the photographs from Abu Ghraib.
In retrospect, it seems hard to believe that Lawson would have retailed a story that involved photos of his nephew sitting atop an Iraqi prisoner tied to a stretcher, because ultimately, of course, it was the pictures themselves that became the story, with Frederick and his fellow enlisted men caught on-camera as the main characters. Hackworth, who has often written about the maltreatment of the enlisted man at the hands of what he calls the military’s “perfumed princes,” believes that Frederick got a stiffer sentence than he would have without media attention. But all the people involved with the story at the start—Lawson, Charles, Mapes—believed that this was a story not just of a few American soldiers who abused their position, but of soldiers who were themselves mistreated by the military.
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Two weeks after the Abu Ghraib story, CBS aired another story about prisoner abuse in Iraq, this time at a large holding facility in Iraq called Camp Bucca. This one, too, fell into the same narrative: Several enlisted soldiers were charged with abuses while higher-ups escaped—according to the soldiers, precisely because they had tried to bring the awful conditions at the camp to the attention of higher-ups. “I’m convinced,” Charles says of one, “the charges were trumped up to shut her up.” CBS aired interviews with the soldiers, as well as a home video showing the appalling conditions at the camp, in which the soldier, her face hidden, callously tells the camera, “We’ve already had two prisoners die [of sand-viper bites], but who cares? That’s two less for me to worry about.” In this case, the soldiers who appeared on CBS may well have been saved from prison by going to the media.
It’s in the context of these stories—Abu Ghraib a huge success, Camp Bucca a moderate one—that the bigger narrative that CBS was telling about the military developed. Conservative pundits have argued that nothing but a fanatical drive to bring down the president could have led Mapes and others at CBS to fall so wholeheartedly for the “holy grail” that purported to prove that Bush was a Vietnam-era shirker. But the really great seduction of the documents might well be that they lay out in explicit detail—the kind of explicit detail that is (not by accident) hardly ever laid out in real documents—exactly the kind of story that Mapes and her military sources believed was emblematic of the way the military really worked, whether in 1972 or today. Again, as with Abu Ghraib and Camp Bucca, Mapes turned to Roger Charles, and later to his mentor Colonel Hackworth. Again, it seemed the same old story of privilege. One document in particular, a personal memo for his own files ostensibly written by Colonel Killian and titled “CYA” (for “cover your ass”), is especially compelling if you are inclined to think of the military as an apparatus whose levers are constantly being pulled by the well connected. “[General] Staudt has obviously pressured [General] Hodges more about Bush,” the memo explains. “I’m having trouble running interference and doing my job.” It is not only the perfect evidence of Bush’s malingering—it is also the perfect evidence of privilege at work, fitting ideally with the big narrative of Abu Ghraib and Camp Bucca, a small window into a world of senior officers looking out for the well connected.
Was this thought in Mapes’s mind as she was working on the Bush story? Consider this: In an interview he conducted for the never-aired segment, Dan Rather quizzed Hackworth on his views about the documents. “I have been in exactly this kind of situation that the good colonel who’s given us these memos for records has been in,” Hackworth tells Rather. “When I returned from Vietnam on my first tour, I ended up in the Pentagon … So as a result, my phone was constantly ringing, Dan, [with] senators, [with] members of the House of Representatives, [with] generals saying, ‘We want Willy not to go to the umpty-ump infantry division. We want him to go to Alaska or to some lifeguard job in Hawaii.’ ” It was not just the president the documents nailed, it was the military itself.
There was one other point that’s worth considering about the Bush documents. Much has been made since CBS aired its ill-fated show of the source of the Bush documents. Mapes’s source, a former Texas Air National Guard colonel named Bill Burkett, had been retailing various stories of Bush’s National Guard service for years, telling news outlets that he had seen officers of the Texas Guard “scrubbing” Bush’s file of questionable material. Burkett’s own experience with the Guard had ended badly, with Burkett reportedly remaining bitter at the Guard over medical bills he believed the military should have covered.
And yet, if to the outsider Burkett—who has since admitted to lying about his own source for the documents, and retired to his ranch in Baird, Texas—seems like a suspect and self-interested source, it might be precisely the hallmark of Mapes’s work at CBS that she was willing to trust sources even less reliable than him. Mapes had procured the stunning Iraq stories precisely by trusting sources who were anything but unimpeachable. All of the soldiers involved in the Iraq stories had, to put it bluntly, a vested interest in staying out of prison. All were charged by the military with serious and even repellent crimes. Even Bill Lawson, perhaps the least compromised of the Abu Ghraib sources, is likely to give the hearer pause when he asks, “Is this really the story of seven guys and gals who took some photographs and maybe slapped a few people around?” If CBS’s claims to have an “unimpeachable” source for the documents now seem, after countless repetition and final disavowal, like the punch line to a joke, it’s hard to know exactly how many of Mapes’s sources for the Abu Ghraib and Camp Bucca stories would have passed anything like the kind of scrutiny that has now been brought to bear on Burkett.
Unfortunately, in the new world of media, they might have to. Unlike other recent media scandals—Stephen Glass, Jayson Blair, USA Today’s Jack Kelly—in which star reporters spent years weaving fake narratives out of whole cloth, the CBS document mess rests ultimately on a mistake, a source who lied, danger signs that were foolishly ignored. Thanks, however, in no small part to CBS’s uniquely favored position as conservatives’ most-hated network, and Dan Rather’s even more distinctive claim to being the right’s most-hated newscaster and unquestionably the oddest duck of the three network anchors, the fact that it is a mistake at the root of the scandal has given CBS not an ounce of reprieve. Which is too bad for Rather and CBS, but maybe worse for investigative reporting. If it has taught the public anything, it might be that the new standard for the media is one in which mistakes are as bad as lies. It is a standard that investigative reporting might find ever harder to live up to, until it is finally swept off the field by the ever-rising tide of commentary, risk-free and mistake-proof.