CBS probe may focus on news culture
CBS probe may focus on news culture
By Jon Friedman, CBS.MarketWatch.com
Last Update: 5:56 PM ET Sept. 21, 2004
NEW YORK (CBS.MW) -- The CBS News investigation into its coverage of President Bush's National Guard duty may shed light on how its culture contributed to the fiasco.
On Monday, the two-week flap reached a climax when a beleaguered CBS conceded that it couldn't verify four documents that it had used to raise questions about Bush's Vietnam-era National Guard duty. Dan Rather, the anchor and managing editor of the CBS Evening News, issued a separate apology.
"The investigation will most likely involve a study of the culture of CBS News, and (we'll) learn that some of the critics have gotten some of these things right," said former CNN executive David Bernknopf. "The panel may find out that CBS has a culture that wanted to believe the worst of the president."
CBS said in a press release that it had made "a mistake in judgment." Rather separately conceded that he "didn't dig hard enough" and confessed that he trusted the wrong source.
What went wrong
Some critics of CBS say the network aired the story because it has a left-leaning political bias. This isn't the first time CBS has been accused of such a thing. It denies the allegation.
"CBS was simply trying to get a great story first," said Los Angeles Times media critic David Shaw. "I don't tend to think that Rather or CBS is biased in an ideological sense."
Certainly, CBS isn't the only network that has messed up while trying to report an explosive story. A decade ago, had to admit it rigged a General Motors truck to explode in a story about fuel-tank safety for its "Dateline" program.
In 1998, CNN apologized and shook up its news ranks after it reported that American soldiers had used nerve gas against American defectors in Laos during the Vietnam War in a project called "Operation Tailwind."
Perhaps the panel will conclude that excessive ambition undermined CBS.
"I went through it at CNN with Tailwind," said Bernknopf, now a media-industry consultant in Atlanta. "You want to do the story for a good reason, because it will boost your career. You convince yourself that you have a story, and any information that contradicts (it) must not be right. There are instances when you fall in love with your story."
In the past few days, some of the most stinging rebukes have come from CBS's own employees.
Morley Safer, a correspondent on the original "60 Minutes," was displeased that a spin-off named "60 Minutes II" could be the source of the trouble.
"These are not standards that would have been ever tolerated, and it's inconceivable this would have made it on the air on the Sunday show," Safer told the New York Times.
In a further sign of the turmoil at CBS, some staff members at the original Sunday "60 Minutes" say their program has been unfairly blemished by the Wednesday spin-off, which began in 1999.
"I think it is safe to say that the overwhelming feeling among correspondents and producers on the Sunday program is that we would not have made the same mistakes," correspondent Steve Kroft told the Washington Post.
Kroft added: "It's hard to know at this point exactly what went wrong, because the Wednesday show is an entirely separate broadcast with entirely different people, and brand-new management. But something clearly went wrong with the process."
CBS faced considerable criticism for its programming twice earlier this year, over the exposure of Janet Jackson's breast during the Super Bowl and a mini-series about former President Ronald Reagan.
Rather, the anchor and managing editor of "The CBS Evening News," was the reporter on the Bush story and is at the center of the controversy.
"Dan Rather is still a mainstay at CBS News and they can't afford to lose him now," said Ken Marlin, a media industry investment banker in New York. "CBS has been trying to put a successor in place for a couple of years, but it's not in CBS' interests to lose Dan right now."
"I would guess that he will (keep his job) because he has done an awful lot of good work for a long time," said the Los Angeles Times' Shaw."
Marlin suggested that Rather wasn't the only party in the wrong.
"There clearly were other people at CBS whose responsibility was to vet this," Marlin said. "We would expect heads to roll over this -- but not Dan's."
CBS is a unit of Viacom, which is a significant investor in MarketWatch, the publisher of this report.
The CBS disclosure continues a disturbing period for the American media. The New York Times and USA Today removed their top editors following announcements that reporters had fabricated stories.
A few months ago, many prominent newspapers, including Newsday and the Chicago Sun-Times, said they had inflated their circulation figures.
The CBS investigation will be widely followed. For it to be viewed as a success, it must deliver serious findings and propose reasonable solutions. It must also be released in its entirety to the public.
"If they do a thorough and aggressive job, it will do some good," Shaw said.
Jon Friedman is media editor for CBS.MarketWatch.com in New York.