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Bias likely at heart of CBS News documents controversy, World’s Marvin Olaksy says

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–World Magazine’s editor-in-chief, Marvin Olasky, says he believes that bias — and not messy reporting — likely was at the heart of CBS News’ use of disputed National Guard documents.

“Could it be gross incompetence? It’s theoretically possible. But it seems perhaps the reason for gross incompetence was incredible bias,” Olasky told Baptist Press.

The documents were at the heart of a “60 Minutes” story Sept. 8 casting doubt on President Bush’s record in the National Guard. After standing by the story for more than a week, the network released a statement Sept. 20 by CBS News President Andrew Heyward saying it was a “mistake” to use the documents and that the news division “cannot prove that the documents are authentic.”

An independent panel led by former U.S. Attorney General Dick Thornburgh and retired Associated Press president and chief executive Louis D. Boccardi will investigate CBS’ use of the memos.

Olasky, a University of Texas journalism professor, said CBS ignored basic journalism standards. The CBS controversy is the cover story of the Sept. 25 edition of World, an evangelical magazine.

“Journalists are taught from the beginning that if you’re standing in front of a house, and you ask what color it is, and the front of it is white, [you] don’t just [assume] it’s a white house,” Olasky said. “You can say the front of the house is white, but go around to the sides and the back, and see for yourself.

“CBS disregarded that basic practice.”

Soon after CBS aired its initial report, document experts told The Washington Post and ABC News that the documents likely were forgeries created recently by a modern word processing program instead of by a typewriter that would have been used in the early 1970s.

Olasky said it “looks like” CBS “really wanted to bash Bush.”

“[I]t seems CBS definitely had an agenda, which for CBS was more important than the facts,” Olasky said. “Every publication, every network has its biases. The question is, do you let those override the facts, or do you go through the normal practice of checking and verification that even journalists in school are told to do?”

R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, made a similar point on his radio program Sept. 20.

“There is no such thing as unbiased news,” Mohler said. “… Every single writer, every singer anchor, reporter, editor, producer has a perspective. The most dangerous thing is if we deny that, and if we think there’s really such a thing as absolutely objective truth-telling in the media.”

The producer of the “60 Minutes” story was Mary Mapes, a veteran producer who also helped find the Abu Ghraib prison photos that dominated the news earlier this year. John Carlson, who hosts a radio program in Seattle and knew Mapes when she worked in that city, told the Associated Press that she was “quite liberal” and disliked Bush’s father.

“She definitely was someone who was motivated by what she cared about and definitely went into journalism to make a difference,” Carlson said. “She’s not the sort of person who went into journalism to report the news and offer an array of commentary.”

CBS News should admit it has a bias, Olasky said.

“What gets CBS in the biggest trouble is when it pretends to be above the fray,” he said. “CBS should admit that it has an ideological agenda. That would be the first honest thing to do.

“Secondly, CBS should say, ‘Here’s our agenda, but we still have a belief in reporting accurately, and we’re going to go through our processes, checks and verifications regardless of what our agenda is.'”

World Magazine, he said, openly acknowledges that it has a biblical worldview.

“CBS perceives from a secular, liberal worldview and should just say so and just be honest,” he said.

Mohler criticized the way the network reacted to the controversy. One week after the initial story aired, CBS broadcast an interview with the secretary who would have typed the documents. Now 86, she said: “I know that I didn’t type them. However, the information in those is correct.” Pointing to the interview, a CBS News story said the network was certain that “the content of the story is true.”

“How can something be fake but authentic?” Mohler asked. “The implication was that if this officer had written such documents, these are the kind of documents he would have written — which is sort of like saying if I did build a skyscraper, that’s the kind of skyscraper I would have built. That is absolute nonsense. But that’s the kind of postmodern worldview that’s filtering through.”

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  • Michael Foust