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Media, Law and the Courts Symposium Explores 60 Minutes Scandal

Four years ago, in the middle of a hot presidential campaign, the CBS News program “60 Minutes Wednesday” aired an explosive segment involving President George Bush’s National Guard service.

But the story backfired and the explosion fizzled. In the aftermath, amid charges of political bias, CBS fired the producer of the National Guard segment, three other producers resigned, and, ultimately, longtime anchor Dan Rather retired.

Now we’re in the middle of another election cycle. For the inaugural Media, Law and the Courts Symposium, Washington and Lee University is taking a look back at how “60 Minutes Wednesday” handled the National Guard story and is asking “What lessons have the media learned?” The symposium is free and open to the public and is put on in conjunction with the Charles S. Rowe Fellows Program.

The March 17 symposium, from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. in Millhiser Moot Court Room in the W&L School of Law, will feature Michael Missal and a panel of three experts in media law and journalism ethics. Missal, with the law firm of K&L Gates in Washington D.C., was general counsel for a group commissioned by CBS to examine the “60 Minutes Wednesday” broadcast and was chief author of the group’s report. At the symposium, he’ll show the National Guard segment (broadcast Sept. 8, 2004) and talk about its failures and the institutional practices at CBS that led to them.

The symposium won’t focus only on CBS. After Missal’s presentation, he and the three panelists will broaden the discussion to include such issues as competitive pressure, timing and politics, and how they affect the media. You don’t have to look any further than the recent controversy over the New York Times’ John McCain-lobbyist story to see how relevant those topics remain.

Like Missal, the symposium panelists all bring outstanding credentials. Walter Dean is director of broadcast/online initiatives with the Committee of Concerned Journalists and a former CBS assignment manager in Washington. Thomas Spahn, with the law firm of McGuire Woods in the Washington area, is a nationally recognized expert on legal ethics and conflicts of interest, as well as an expert in First Amendment and media liability issues. Edward Wasserman is Knight Chair in Journalism Ethics at Washington and Lee and writes frequently in the national media.

The symposium is being conducted with special funding from the Donald W. Reynolds Foundation, a national philanthropic organization founded in 1954 by the late media entrepreneur for whom it is named. Headquartered in Las Vegas, Nev., it is one of the largest private foundations in the United States.