CBS owes Ed Bradley an apology

After breaking the news that legendary newsman Ed Bradley had died of leukemia, CBS News officials said, and did, most of the right things. Bradley's former colleagues at CBS toasted him for being “everything you admire in a great journalist,” and the network devoted an entire night of 60 Minutes to highlighting Bradley's distinguished career as a skilled storyteller. When a tribute to Bradley is held November 21 at the Riverside Church in New York City, the CBS News team, synonymous with Bradley for more than three decades, will likely have a significant presence.

After breaking the news that legendary newsman Ed Bradley had died of leukemia, CBS News officials said, and did, most of the right things. Bradley's former colleagues at CBS toasted him for being “everything you admire in a great journalist,” and the network devoted an entire night of 60 Minutes to highlighting Bradley's distinguished career as a skilled storyteller. When a tribute to Bradley is held November 21 at the Riverside Church in New York City, the CBS News team, synonymous with Bradley for more than three decades, will likely have a significant presence.

But CBS still owes Bradley a belated apology stemming from its shameful decision during the 2004 presidential campaign to pointedly refuse to run a factually solid story of his that chronicled how the Bush administration had misled the country into war. Specifically, the Bradley story detailed the murky circumstances surrounding bogus Nigerien documents unearthed in 2002 -- the alleged smoking gun -- that purported to prove that Saddam Hussein had purchased 500 tons of so-called yellowcake uranium to build a nuclear bomb. The documents turned out to be obvious fakes, but that didn't stop the Bush administration from eagerly using them in an effort to scare Americans with doomsday talk.

  • "[W]e now know that Saddam has resumed his efforts to acquire nuclear weapons." Vice President Dick Cheney, 2002.
  • “We do know that he [Saddam] is actively pursuing a nuclear weapon.” then-National security adviser Condoleezza Rice, 2002.
  • “The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.” President Bush's 2003 State of the Union Address.

Bradley's in-depth investigation, had it aired, would have been the first by a major network news outlet to devote serious time and energy to investigating the baffling case of the forged Niger documents, which were used as a pivotal propaganda tool.

But spooked by the controversy still raging over CBS' botched 60 Minutes II report on Bush and the National Guard, the one featuring the now-infamous unauthenticated memos allegedly written by Bush's commander, CBS News president Andrew Heyward completely abdicated the network's news responsibility and announced that Bradley's hard-hitting, and previously scheduled, story would not be broadcast in 2004. “We now believe it would be inappropriate to air the report so close to the presidential election,” a CBS spokeswoman said at the time. (In fact, it was 18 months before Bradley's report, in an altered state, was safely broadcast on 60 Minutes.)

I realize the certified corporate-media takeaway from CBS' National Guard controversy, featuring Dan Rather, is supposed to be that the network was guilty of a colossal, historic newsroom blunder that ranks as one of the real earth-shattering journalism scandals of recent decades.

But I think any journalism pro who looks at the facts objectively would conclude that CBS' weak-kneed decision to spike Bradley's story represented the real newsroom calamity; a calculated capitulation that did far more long-lasting damage to CBS' newsgathering integrity than the Guard story, which, after all, the network eventually apologized for. And it did more than that. It appointed an independent inquiry, headed by a former Republican attorney general (Richard Thornburgh), to investigate what went wrong. It fired four senior producers, it canceled 60 Minutes II altogether, and even booted Rather from the anchor chair.

Yet to this day, CBS has not apologized for its timorous Niger surrender, which smeared Bradley's good name and hard work -- after the National Guard story erupted, Heyward told Bradley his Niger report wasn't good enough to broadcast, despite the fact it had already been slotted to run. (Ironically, Bradley's Niger investigation was set to air September 8, 2004, but got bumped by the National Guard scoop.)

At the time, Bradley was diplomatic and said little publicly about his held story, other than conceding he was “disappointed that it didn't run.” But my guess is Bradley, a consummate pro, was deeply offended by the spectacle of the panic-stricken CBS News boss releasing a press statement that, in effect, labeled Bradley's work as “inappropriate.”

Heyward's decision was not only insulting to Bradley, but mind-numbingly weak, telegraphed by the mental gymnastics he went through to try to justify the obvious self-censorship.

The basis for CBS' explanation -- “inappropriate” -- is still hard to comprehend since it flips a fundamental principle of American journalism on its head. Namely, that the job of the free press is to fairly report the news of the day in an effort to educate the citizenry, to help it make informed decisions, such as electing presidents. Yet in one desperate, CYA move, Heyward suggested that tenet was all wrong. “The idea that you would withhold journalism because you think it would have an effect on the world runs contrary to the whole idea of what journalism should be,” noted Peter Hart at the time, a media analyst for Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting.

And what to make of CBS' insistence it couldn't air the Niger investigation “so close to the presidential election”? CBS tossed Bradley overboard six weeks before voters went to the polls. Airing Bradley's report hardly would have qualified as some sort of last-minute surprise attack.

Even if you accepted Heyward's tortured premise that factually accurate stories should not be broadcast six or eight weeks before an election, why was Bradley's piece considered appropriate when it was first scheduled for broadcast on September 8, but suddenly “inappropriate” when CBS made its announcement to yank it on September 24? Was Heyward really suggesting that by delaying the piece two weeks CBS had crossed over some imaginary line that separated acceptable journalism from unacceptable journalism?

More machinations: At one point, responding to critics who scolded CBS for holding the report until after the elections, Heyward told the Associated Press “it would be inappropriate for us to succumb to partisan pressure to air it earlier.” [Emphasis added.] Read that quote again. Heyward, just days after he clearly caved to “partisan pressure” on the right by indefinitely shelving the Niger story, puffed out his chest and announced he would not cave to “partisan pressure” from the left to air the Niger story as previously planned. (That kind of intellectual dishonesty alone should have cost Heyward his job. Instead, he limped through the National Guard controversy before quietly leaving CBS in October of 2005.)

Meanwhile, according to Ken Auletta's 2005 reporting in The New Yorker, “Heyward and other news executives said that if CBS were to air [Bradley's piece] in the wake of the National Guard fiasco it would make it appear that CBS was determined to defeat Bush.” Note that the CBS concern was not about the facts of the Bradley report. That's because there was nothing in dispute. The story was irrefutable, particularly since nobody associated with the White House was willing to vouch for the obviously fake Niger memos. Yet senior members of the CBS News team, panicked by the attacks from the right-wing noise machine revving up Memogate, pulled the story for fear it wouldn't look good.

Recall that in 1995, CBS lawyers famously refused to allow 60 Minutes to broadcast an expose on tobacco companies featuring an on-camera interview with whistle-blower Jeffrey Wigand. Lawyers claimed Wigand's inclusion would open the network up to a massive lawsuit for “tortious interference.” (Wigand, the former head of research for Brown & Williamson tobacco, had signed a nondisclosure agreement when he left the company in 1993.) The Wigand episode revolved around the real issue of whether CBS would expose itself -- and its shareholders -- to significant losses. By contrast, there were no legal issues attached to the Bradley story. Just issues of appearance, pride, and cowardice.

It seems obvious that what insiders at CBS were really uncomfortable with was the fact that because the network got duped by fake documents in the National Guard story, it would be awkward to turn around and air the Niger story because it criticized the Bush White House for getting duped by faked documents. In other words, CBS would “be a laughingstock,” as one source fretted to Newsweek.

Was it coincidental that both reports revolved around fake documents? Yes. Were the two situations comparable? Not in the least. For starters, one dispute centered on the negligence of the United States government, the other on the negligence of a TV news producer. (Last time I checked, CBS couldn't launch pre-emptive invasions of oil-rich countries.) Secondly, if the White House had been serious about determining the Niger documents' authenticity, it had months to flesh them out before Bush used them as a reference in his State of the Union Address, as compared with CBS producer Mary Mapes, who had roughly 72 hours to do her homework before going to air with the National Guard report.

Another difference was that prior to the September 8 airdate, Mapes received contrasting opinions about whether the National Guard memos were legit (she was too quick to dismiss the naysayers), whereas the White House was told repeatedly by top CIA officials, including then-CIA Director George Tenet, that the Niger allegations were baseless and should not be used to publicly justify an invasion. Yet the White House chose to consciously ignore the warnings.

What did viewers miss in 2004? According to Salon's Mary Jacoby, who obtained a copy of Bradley's report days before CBS shelved it, the expose, produced by David Gelber, ran 30 minutes. That's double the usual length of a 60 Minutes report, signaling the significance executives at CBS gave the segment, which took six months to produce. Jacoby wrote that it featured the first on-camera interview with Elisabetta Burba, the Italian journalist who received the fake Niger documents in 2002 and passed them on to the U.S. Embassy in Rome. From there, the crude documents made their way to the CIA -- which disputed them -- and the White House, which embraced them. Burba told Bradley how she traveled to Niger and concluded that Iraq could not have purchased uranium from the tightly controlled French-run mines in Niger and that the documents were fakes. In 2003, officials at the International Atomic Energy Agency spent just a couple of hours googling and came to the same conclusion: the documents were obvious fakes. Yet 12 days later, the Bush administration went to war with Iraq.

Jacoby described Bradley's effort as “a hard-hitting report making a powerful case that in trying to build support for the Iraq war, the Bush administration either knowingly deceived the American people about Saddam Hussein's nuclear capabilities or was grossly credulous.” As Jacoby also noted, “Had Bradley's piece aired, millions of Americans would have seen it in the heat of the presidential campaign.”

Instead, CBS stood down and announced its surrender. And that's why CBS owes Ed Bradley an apology.