Rather says CBS can overcome
Says he will keep lessons of the report 'well in mind'
NEW YORK (CNN) -- Veteran anchorman Dan Rather sent a memo to his CBS News colleagues Tuesday calling for "a renewed dedication to journalism of the highest quality."
Rather said in that way the network can overcome the negative fallout from a report by an independent panel highly critical of a "60 Minutes Wednesday" segment on President Bush's National Guard service.
"I have been here through good times and not so good times. I have seen us overcome adversity before," Rather wrote in his first public comments since the report was released Monday.
"I am convinced we can do so again. That must be our focus and priority."
"Lest anyone have any doubt, I have read the report, I take it seriously, and I shall keep its lessons well in mind," Rather said.
Rather returned to the anchor chair of the "CBS Evening News" Tuesday, after being absent Monday.
But he made no reference to the report or the Bush Guard story.
CBS made public Monday a scathing 234-page report by an independent panel commissioned by the network to investigate the September 8 report on Bush's Guard service, which was based on documents the network later conceded could not be authenticated.
Written by former Attorney General Dick Thornburgh and retired Associated Press chief Louis Boccardi, who led the 10-member panel, the report concluded that the segment had "considerable and fundamental deficiencies."
It said competitive pressure to break the story in the heat of the presidential campaign prevented CBS News from thoroughly vetting the documents. (Full story)
In the wake of the report, the producer of the segment, Mary Mapes, was fired, and three other executives were asked to resign.
But Rather -- who presented the story, vociferously defended it, and came under considerable fire from Bush supporters after it aired -- was not disciplined.
CBS President Les Moonves said Rather, who had already announced that he would leave the anchor chair in March, would not be punished because he had been only peripherally involved in producing the report and had relied on Mapes' assurances about the authenticity of the documents.
"His biggest sin was to trust a producer whom he'd worked with very successfully in the past," Moonves said.
He said Rather's decision to step down from the anchor chair was his own and was initiated before the Bush Guard segment aired.
Responding to Moonves, Mapes released a statement Monday insisting that the story was neither false nor misleading and accusing the network chief of "vitriolic scapegoating" motivated "by corporate and political considerations."
In his memo to the CBS News staff, Rather said the panel's report was "a necessary process to deal with a difficult issue, at the end of which four good people have lost their jobs."
"My strongest reaction is one of sadness and concern for those individuals whom I know and with whom I have worked," he wrote.
"It would be a shame if we let this matter, troubling as it is, obscure their dedication and good work over the years.
We should take seriously the admonition of the report's authors to do our job well and carefully.
"Yet good can come from this process if CBS News, and the hundreds of able professionals who labor every day to fill an essential public service in an open society, emerge with a renewed dedication to journalism of the highest quality.
"We should take seriously the admonition of the report's authors to do our job well and carefully, but also their parallel admonition not be be afraid to cover important and controversial issues."
In the segment in question, which aired September 8 on the "60 Minutes Wednesday" program, Rather reported allegations that Bush used his family connections to get into the Texas Air National Guard during the Vietnam War era.
The story said that once Bush was in the Guard, he failed to fulfill his obligations and ignored a direct order to get a required physical.
Included in the story were four memos purportedly written by Lt. Col. Jerry Killian, Bush's squadron commander, in which he complained about Bush's conduct and said he was being pressured to "sugar coat" the future president's evaluations. Killian died in 1984.
The legitimacy of the documents came into question almost immediately after they became public.
After defending the report for 12 days, CBS News eventually admitted it could not vouch for the authenticity of the memos.
It disclosed that they were obtained from Burkett, a retired Texas National Guard officer and longtime Bush critic.
Rather apologized on the air.