CBS controversy discussed in classrooms

(U-WIRE) WASHINGTON – Journalism schools across the country are using real media issues like the CBS/Bush memos controversy as teaching tools.

On the Sept. 8th edition of 60 Minutes, anchor, Dan Rather presented documents that raised more questions about President Bush’s Air National Guard service. The memos were allegedly signed by Lt. Col. Jerry Killian, the commander of Bush’s Texas Air National Guard fighter squad.

Bloggers quickly challenged the authenticity of the documents arguing that the typeface used in the memos wasn’t available on typewriters in the early 1970s.

CBS and Rather not only stood by their story but adamantly defended it. “This report was not based solely on recovered documents, but rather on a preponderance of evidence, including documents that were provided by unimpeachable sources, interviews with former Texas National Guard officials and individuals who worked closely back in the early 1970s with Colonel Jerry Killian and were well acquainted with his procedures, his character and his thinking,” CBS said in a statement on Sept. 10.

Just five days later, CBS revealed that its source, Bill Burkett, had misled the network about the documents’ origins and thus CBS could no longer stand by the story.

“Based on what we now know, CBS News cannot prove that the documents are authentic, which is the only acceptable journalistic standard to justify using them in the report,” said CBS News President Andrew Heyward in a statement. “We should not have used them. That was a mistake, which we deeply regret.”

As the CBS story unfolded, journalism students analyzed every aspect of it including what went wrong, how a credible news organization could make so many mistakes and how CBS handled the aftermath.

“I use stories in the news to get the students to learn caution and fact-checking,” said Keith Botsford, a journalism professor at Boston University.

Botsford divided his Advanced Newswriting class into four investigative groups, one on Dan Rather, one on the show’s producer, Mary Mapes, one on the staffing and budget of the CBS program, and one on its history.

“Student reaction is strong, strongly anti-CBS,” he said. Janet Steele, a journalism professor at George Washington University discussed it in her intro to journalism class in terms of how other media has covered it.

“The sad thing is that the original story gets lost in the controversy over the sloppiness and negligence of the journalists themselves,” she said.

Kristie Schumacher, a senior journalism major at George Washington, discussed the scandal in two of her classes this semester.

“It is important for journalism majors to discuss media issues because that’s what they plan to pursue, careers in the media, but I think that it is important for everyone because the media affects every career and everyone,” Schumacher said.

Bringing current media issues into the classroom can often be more powerful than just using material in textbooks.

“It shows that even the best of the best make mistakes,” Schumacher said. “You always have to check your facts and not cut corners.”

Like the CBS story, the media coverage of the 2000 elections, the Jayson Blair and Jack Kelley scandals, and Robert Novak’s column in which he revealed the name of a CIA agent have all become classroom material, journalism professors said.

CBS has named former Associated Press president chief executive Louis D. Boccardi and former Pennsylvania governor and U.S. Attorney General Dick Thornburgh to an independent panel to investigate how CBS handled the story.

“The two-person review panel will commence its work this week and will have full access and complete cooperation from CBS News and CBS as well as all of the resources necessary to complete the task,” CBS said in a statement. “The panel will report its findings to CBS News and CBS. The findings also will be made public.”

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