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September 20, 2004

Did the President of CBS News Have Anyone in Charge of Reading the Internet and Sending Alerts?

My initial statement on the CBS surrender: A clerk who understood the Net, read the blogs and followed the press could have seen the danger signs accumulating day-by-day. But CBS made statements and took actions that showed a reading comprehension score near zero. The outside reviewers should pick up the plot from there. But who gets appointed: only insiders?

“Today’s announcement is just one part of a massive institutional failure at CBS, much of it still to be uncovered….”

One person close to the situation said the critical question would be, “Where was everybody’s judgment on that last day?” — New York Times account, Sep. 20.

CBS News, having now admitted that documents it relied on were inauthentic, will have troubles graver than a retraction of Dan Rather’s account and an official apology to President Bush, to CBS viewers and to the American public. For starters:

In my initial view and there is more to come….

Today’s announcement is just one part of a massive institutional failure at CBS, much of it still to be uncovered. When the case is complete, the thread that will seem extraordinary, and most inexplicable, is the ignorant, reflexive and high-handed reaction to the doubts that began to accumulate on the Internet shortly after the broadcast aired. From there they jumped to the news media, which began to find disturbing weaknesses in the memos that CBS claimed were real. (See the Washington Post’s recap here and this timeline of events, perhaps the best resource we have so far.)

The strangest part to me and many others who were watching it happen is that the coming apart of CBS’s case progressed publicly, step by step on the Internet, and in the national press, but without the leadership of CBS seemingly able to read this development, and react intelligently to it. There was a default in basic awareness exhibited, in a form that is extreme for a “communications” company. Some will say this is easy to explain, but I think not.

Tim Rutten in the Los Angeles Times was right: “Watching Dan Rather unravel over the past week has been something like watching a train wreck unfold: You know it’s all going to end badly, but you just can’t look away until you’ve seen how many cars ultimately go off the rails.” There must have been people within the company who were watching right along with Rutten.

Why no one in charge for CBS was able to see what these people saw is a big mystery at the moment.

It’s one thing to explain how a team of dedicated people misjudge a story they have tracked for years. I think we all sense how that happens. It requires another leap of imagination to grasp that the network bosses in New York, including the news division led by CBS News President Andrew Heyward, were unable to examine critically their claim to have already authenticated the key documents in the story.

The people who reacted publicly on behalf of CBS—Rather, Heyward, Josh Howard, and a few other spokespeople—were actively hostile to voices on the Internet who were trying to point out what the network admitted today. This group was permitted to shore up the case for a failing thesis on CBS News programs that followed the original broadcast, thus compounding the error and extending it over more air time.

On September 20th, CBS News said it “cannot prove that the documents are authentic, which is the only acceptable journalistic standard to justify using them in the report.”

Intelligent, inquisitive people (granted, some were enemies of the network) were saying just that—“you guys cannot prove the documents are for real”—within hours of the broadcast on September 8th. And they began making a case that journalists from other news organizations were able to pick up on within 24 hours.

Thus, for twelve days the posture of CBS News and network management did not reflect what was actually happening to their cause— in the press, which began to pick off the experts CBS said it had used, and the blog sphere, where a far more elaborate and detailed examination was underway.

This successful act of scrutiny included the kind of distributed fact-checking made possible by the Internet, a new development in journalism but one that savvy people at CBS should have understood.

Any bright CBS intern who understood the Net, read the blogs and followed the press could have read the danger signs accumulating day-by-day. But CBS made statements and took actions that showed a reading comprehension score of almost zero. Did the President of CBS News have anyone in charge of reading the Internet and sending him alerts? I think the commission might begin right there in its effort to unravel this.

There was a crisis of verification at CBS, it involved the memos, and part of it was that the crisis had gone undetected at the top. Therefore for twelve days there was a leadership default getting worse and worse, adding to the failures in quality control and professional judgment.

I should make it clear: I am not in favor of any hearings, and I think they would be dangerous to a free press. (And a political carnival.) I am against attempts to discredit an entire news organization, including this one with all its glaring faults. I regret that a dangerously politicized war on the mainstream media has come to this point. And I find it impossible to defend what CBS did in this episode, especially the corporate response to growing criticism of its reporting.

From August 9th until today the network has been digging itself a deeper hole with this story. Today, at least, CBS stopped digging and looked at where it was.

Earlier Rather coverage at PressThink:

Rather’s Satisfaction: Mystifying Troubles at CBS. (Sep. 18) “Dan Rather and CBS took the risky course, impunging the motives of critics, rather than a more confident and honorable one: Let’s look at our sources and methods. What can explain such a blind reaction? Here is my attempt…”

Stark Message for the Legacy Media. (Sep. 14) “Journalists find before them, with 50 days left, a campaign overtaken by Vietnam, by character issues, attacks, and fights about the basic legitimacy of various actors— including the press itself, including Dan Rather. It’s been a dark week. And the big arrow is pointing backwards….”

Weekend Notes with Forgery Swrling in the Air. (Sep. 11) “By Monday morning, we should know a great deal more about whether CBS News peddled forged documents as the real thing in its recent investigation of President Bush’s National Guard Service. Here are some quick thoughts— not about the charges, which seem serious to me, but about the general atmosphere and what’s at stake if this turns into a political scandal…”

This certainly adds another dimension, and begins to explain, perhaps, some of the CBS bluster: CBS arranged for meeting with Lockhart from USA Today. And here’s the AP account: “Joe Lockhart denied any connection between the presidential campaign and the papers. Lockhart, the second Kerry ally to confirm contact with retired Texas National Guard officer Bill Burkett, said he made the call at the suggestion of CBS producer Mary Mapes.”

“The time has come…” Jeff Jarvis, who appeared on MSNBC’s Deborah Norville tonight, writes at Buzzmachine when he gets back:

Tonight on Deborah Norville’s show, there was too much talk for my taste about CBS as the Tiffany network and the gold-standard of TV journalism. That’s not only a terribly outdated perception of CBS — which is just another news company — but the attempt to harken back to those alleged golden days also continues to separate journalism from the people. It tries to keep journalism behind stone walls, cathedral or palace, priesthood or monarchy.

As the Rather affair shows, journalists are nothing if not human, and nothing if not fallible.

The time has come for journalists to admit that. The time has come for them to take Dan Gillmor’s words to heart and realize that the audience knows more than they do.

“A sort of generic, fossilized authority…” Salon’s Scott Rosenberg has it right (warning: he plugs this post at the end):

What really hurts, for CBS and the rest of the networks’ news operations, is that, at this late date in media history, trust is the only advantage the broadcast networks can claim. They no longer deliver the news faster than rivals, they certainly don’t deliver it in more depth or from more viewpoints or with more style. Their only remaining edge has been a sort of generic, fossilized authority. More people get their news from us than through any other channel, the broadcasters’ unspoken claim went. That makes us the arbiters of the news. And we take that responsibility seriously — you can count on us to get things right.

Betsy Newmark: “Incredibly, the CBS people seem to be sticking by the ‘fake but accurate’ defense. Don’t these people read the blogs. They should assign someone to be reading all the blogs and checking out that info. But, that would be too much acknowledgement of the pajama brigade.”

“Error made in good faith…” From Dan Rather’s statement today:

… if I knew then what I know now, I would not have gone ahead with the story as it was aired, and I certainly would not have used the documents in question.

But we did use the documents. We made a mistake in judgment, and for that I am sorry. It was an error that was made, however, in good faith and in the spirit of trying to carry on a CBS News tradition of investigative reporting without fear or favoritism.

Please know that nothing is more important to us than people’s trust in our ability and our commitment to report fairly and truthfully.

“Because of faith…” At Dead Parrot Society, journalist Ryan Pitts on the Rather mea culpa:

No one believes this error was made in good faith. People believe that the error was made because of faith — you believed in the documents because they fit the narrative — but that’s quite a different thing. Nothing that’s come to light about CBS’ pursuit of this story suggests that good faith and lack of favoritism were part of the process at all. In fact, everything suggests that the real principles of journalism were pretty far down the list of priorities.

Stonewalling, spinning, whitewashing… Rhetorician and blogger Cori Dauber on Rather’s apology.

This would have been adequate a few days in, as an apology for making the initial mistake of going with bad documents. We can all understand making a mistake of that sort.

But this completely ignores the way CBS handled what happened once the story went south. Attacking critics as partisans. Reporting the attacks in a partial way and only selectively interviewing experts supporting their point of view. Stonewalling, spinning, whitewashing.

They don’t seem to understand that their credibility has been hurt, not nearly as badly by the initial mistake, as by everything that’s happened afterwards.

Emboldened by criticism… Says Slate’s Jack Shafer (Sep. 20):

Investigative reporters also expect their scoops to be attacked, especially if the story’s subject is powerful or shady, so they’re emboldened rather than discouraged by the first round of criticism. We must be getting close to the marrow if they’re screaming this loud! they think. If the criticism comes from the competition, they’re particularly nasty, as Dan Rather was, when he fended off questions about the documents’ authenticity by saying that the rest of the media should go after Bush’s military record instead of ripping CBS News.

…TV journalists usually act as though they’re infallible. When was the last time you heard Rather or any other network anchor issue a correction or a retraction? It’s as rare as rain on the moon. Compare CBS’s imperious behavior to that of the Times, which issued 2,867 corrections in 2002. With no systematic way to address errors, the network has no built-in safety valve that allows it to correct the record. It has only two choices: Stand by its story completely, or fold completely.

“I’ve got to presume they were real…” Wall Street Journal reporters Joe Flint and Greg Hitt: (Sep. 21)

Mr. Bush’s communications director, Dan Bartlett, said the White House requested copies of the disputed documents from CBS the night before Mr. Bartlett was to be interviewed about them, but was told no. Officials said a CBS representative did read the documents to the White House that night. But the actual documents were delivered the morning of the interview, and Bush aides were given three hours to review them.

“The presumption was they were real,” Mr. Bartlett said yesterday, adding it was “not the obligation” of the White House to verify the material. “How in the heck could you expect a person in three hours to question the validity of a dead man’s documents? I’ve got to presume they were real, and respond.”

Robots and bullies… According to Jessie Walker in Reason magazine back on Sep. 15:

Cyberspace offers many rewards, but it’s also filled with partisan robots and knuckle-dragging bullies, with would-be reporters who don’t understand the concept of evidence and would-be analysts who can’t be bothered to comprehend the views they’re critiquing, with would-be stylists who rely on clichés and would-be satirists without a trace of wit. Worse yet, it’s filled with disinformation and fog, especially during a presidential campaign and a war. It’s tempting to recoil from all the contradictory claims and to despair of ever learning the truth.

Dan Rather’s career:

Born: Oct. 31, 1931, in Wharton, Texas
1950: Reporter for United Press International
1952-59: Reporter for several radio and television stations in Houston
1962: Joins CBS News as chief of its Southwest Bureau in Dallas
1963: Gains national attention covering Kennedy assassination, also covers civil rights movement
1968: Clashes with security personnel at turbulent Democratic National Convention in Chicago
1968-72: Serves as CBS bureau chief in Saigon and London, and as White House correspondent in the Johnson and Nixon administrations
1974: Famous confrontation with Richard Nixon: “Are you running for something, Mr. Rather? No, Mr. President, are you?”
1981: Named anchor and managing editor of CBS Evening News
1985: Senator Jessie Helms (Rep., NC) urges conservatives to buy CBS stock and become Dan Rather’s boss.
1987: Rather walks off the set of CBS Evening News, believing his program had been pre-empted. Network goes black for six minutes.
1988: On-air confrontation with Vice President George H.W. Bush: “You made us hypocrites in the eyes of the world!”
1990: First American journalist to interview Saddam Hussein after Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait
1995: Reports from front lines in the Bosnian war
Sept. 11, 2001: Serves as live anchor of CBS coverage of terrorist attacks
2003: Exclusive interview with Saddam Hussein on brink of the Iraq war

Posted by Jay Rosen at September 20, 2004 2:39 PM