BOB GARFIELD: You probably know that CBS News was burned by a bogus document about the president's National Guard Service. You may not know that when that story was rushed to air on 60 Minutes, it bumped another more important piece that happened to be about forged documents. That story pertains to the president's claim that Iraq had tried to buy yellow cake uranium from the African country if Niger: proof, the administration suggested, that the danger was imminent, and we had to go to war. But 60 Minutes found that the White House had based its claim on forged documents --documents that could easily have been checked. Maybe the irony of it all, that CBS in its National Guard story itself was careless about verifying dubious documents was too much for the network to take. CBS has decided to spike the Niger report until after the election -- a decision that has reportedly infuriated 60 Minutes producers. Newsweek magazine's Mark Hosenball wrote about the chilling effect of Rathergate, and he joins me now. Mark, welcome to On the Media.
MARK HOSENBALL: Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: So, Mark -- a CBS story about Bush's reliance on fake documents to support the war in Iraq is being spiked, at least temporarily, because of another unrelated CBS story that, it turns out, apparently also relied on fake documents. Now, I'm trying to see this from the network's perspective. Under the circumstances, who are we to cast stones. Is that what's going on here?
MARK HOSENBALL: Yes, it's pretty clear that the network's been completely freaked out by the reaction to and their apparent mishandling of the story based on apparently fake documents about Bush's National Guard service, so they're not going to take any chances with other stories that even appear to look like that story. And so they've decided to hold -- not necessarily permanently kill -- but hold this other story about how documents came to be circulated, alleging that Saddam Hussein's regime had tried to buy uranium in the African country of Niger before the Iraq War -- an allegation which made it into President Bush's 2003 State of the Union speech right before the war, and an allegation which later turned out to be partially founded on documents that were obvious fakes.
BOB GARFIELD: Let me ask you this: is there any evidence that the substance of the story that CBS is spiking is under any serious question -- that journalistically there's a reason not to run it?
MARK HOSENBALL: There's certainly still questions that I think are unresolved by the story, as to where these documents originated, but I think the story, from what I gather, is based on solid, you know, walking-the-streets, foot-leather reporting. Legitimate interviews. The story is up front that it's about phony documents. It doesn't [LAUGHS] rely on phony documents to make its case.
BOB GARFIELD: If you've reported a story, and you've documented it, and you feel comfortable with it -- and it's important -- and it could have a bearing on a very important election -- and-- you don't run it -- what the hell good are you?
MARK HOSENBALL: Arguably, you are abrogating your responsibility as a news organization if you don't run a story that's nailed down. I, I, [LAUGHS] I agree with you there.
BOB GARFIELD: Does this suggest that the chilling effect of the Rathergate debacle is going to keep CBS from doing its journalistic job indefinitely or have they suggested that, you know, at some point in the near future, that they're going to get back to doing what journalistic organizations do, which is to commit journalism.
MARK HOSENBALL: I think it could actually have a long-lasting and deleterious effect on their journalism. Clearly at the very least, this effect is going to continue until the resolution of their own internal investigation into what happened. If they come up with a clear story line explaining how they made this mistake with the Bush National Guard documents and find clear victims or culprits who committed that, then maybe they can just sort of say oh, it's just a bunch of-- people and we, we've dealt with them, and we're going to get back to good journalism. On the other hand, I think they're still going to be kind of nervous about doing stuff like that, and at least for a while, maybe they ought to be. Maybe they ought to put in a new system in place there first, to make sure that these mistakes can't happen again, and I'm sure that's one of the things that they're going to look at.
BOB GARFIELD: Could this have worked out any better for the Bush-Cheney campaign?
MARK HOSENBALL: The CBS miscue with the Bush National Guard documents basically took the National Guard issue about Bush's National Guard service and whether he did it the way you're supposed to do it completely off the table, wrote it out of the script for the rest of the election, made it impossible for anybody, including the Democrats, never mind news organizations, to raise serious questions about it any more. And that clearly helped the Bush campaign, sure. And this, this other story is just collateral damage, as they say in the military.
BOB GARFIELD: Mark, thanks very much.
MARK HOSENBALL: Oh, thank you for having me.
BOB GARFIELD: Mark Hosenball is a reporter with Newsweek. He collaborated with colleague Michael Isikoff on a story of the chilling effect of Rathergate on CBS News.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Coming up, we check in on the effort to create a liberal Limbaugh -- Air America is six months old. Also, Japan's disturbingly undemocratic press.