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September 24, 2004

Does CBS News Have a Political Future in This State?

The affiliates are hearing it. There's a campaign to get Bob Schieffer dumped from the debates. William Safire is asking about criminal charges. And some of the worst ever numbers for media trust were just released. From the CBS truth commission we need something... dramatic.

There are signs that the controversy is hurting CBS and anchor Dan Rather at the local level. Bob Lee, general manager of WBDJ-TV in Roanoke and president of the CBS Affiliates Association, said he has heard from many stations and “we’re all being battered.” Howard Kurtz, Washington Post, Sep. 23

Two days ago, CBS announced its two-person truth commission. Richard Thornburgh, Attorney General during parts of the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations, and a former governor of Pennsylvania. Louis D. Boccardi, former chief executive of the Associated Press, where he worked for 36 years. (Press release.)

Not well known to the public, Lou Boccardi is a natural choice within the industry, and a proven commodity— “one of three outsiders who served last year on a committee with reporters and editors of The New York Times that investigated the repeated fabrications of a former reporter, Jayson Blair,” said the Times.

The Thornburgh appointment is the fascinating part. A politician. Former federal prosecutor and snarling TV commentator Victoria Toensing told Kurtz that Thornburgh is a good choice for CBS “because he’s a Republican, so it doesn’t look partisan the wrong way.”

Partisan the wrong way. Hmmm. Well, why name a politician at all? Why a Republican and why this one? Why not a Democrat? Why not a Democrat and a Republican? Isn’t balance a watchword anymore? What’s the thinking here, CBS? “CBS executives declined to elaborate on the selection of Mr. Thornburgh,” said the Journal Sep. 23. Not in a sharing mood, I guess. Mike Wallace had some thoughts, however: “It occurs to me that on the team of investigators should be someone who has experience with how a television piece is put together,” Wallace said. “He has none, as far as I know.”

It has seemed to me since the first weekend of this crisis that CBS was in political danger because of something that had gone wrong with its journalism. It had to fight a war for legitimacy and reputation, and that’s a political struggle, but since the news division was the one involved in the fight, CBS had to also claim that it had no politics at all. This is not a recipe for clarity.

It is the ruling fiction at a network news division: we’re professional news people, and we don’t “do” politics. Just the other day this was said. Spokeswoman Kelli Edwards on Sep. 21: “It is obviously against CBS News standards and those of every other reputable news organization to be associated with any political agenda.” She was reacting to news that Joe Lockhart of the Kerry campaign had been involved in a deal to secure the memos from CBS’s source, Bill Burkett.

It would be routine for CBS News to identify former Governor Richard Thornburgh as a Republican in any reporting it did. After all, he is one. But he’s not a Republican in the CBS announcement of the review committee. That word does not appear. One reason, I guess, is that CBS would have to provide Boccardi’s party affiliation if Thornburgh’s were given. And Boccardi doesn’t identify that way. He’s a newsie.

See the tension?

Because of that tension, which is at the very heart of this scandal, Thornburgh and Boccardi have a shot at pulling CBS through, but it will be very difficult given that we’re in a tense election. The first big decision they have to make is whether to finish a report before Election Day— a very tough call. A political decision, in fact.

But then so was the decision to have a review in the first place. For reasons not made clear at the time, Andrew Heyward, president of CBS News, and Leslie Moonves, chairman of CBS Television and co-president of the CBS parent, Viacom, were allowed to define the scope of inquiry into events where they are implicated— heavily so.

Look at the charge that Heyward and Moonves gave the Committee, as per the CBS announcement on Sep. 22:

to help determine what errors occurred in the preparation of the report and what actions need to be taken.

This begins in the logical place: where were the screw ups in the story? It ends in the logical place: what do we do now to fix it? And it pretends that twelve days in the calendar don’t exist.

That would be the period from Sep. 9, when problems first emerged, to Sep. 20, when CBS announced that it no longer had confidence in the report it aired on President Bush and his National Guard service. Ernest Miller has a detailed timeline in two-parts: here and here. Only by reading these posts, and clicking through to the links, can an observer fully appreciate CBS’s stonewalling and why it matters.

My NYU colleague Adam Penenberg, writing in Wired, summarizes what went down:

At first, Rather refused to consider the possibility that CBS had been duped, brushing off both journalists, who he called “the professional rumor mill,” and bloggers, whose “motivations” he questioned.

Feeling the heat, CBS produced experts to buttress its story, only to have them recant. Some claimed they had warned CBS about the documents. Others believed they had been misled or their findings misinterpreted. Meanwhile, the Associated Press retained its own expert who concluded the memos had most likely been word-processed. ABC, CNN, NBC, Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post and USA Today weighed in on the growing media scandal — all of which prompted CBS to announce its own investigation.

What happened between those two dates (Sep. 9-20) is critical to the politics and the journalism of the story. And, of course, we find some critical actions taken—or not taken—by Heyward, as Dan Rather’s boss, and Moonves, head of CBS. Here are five clusters the review panel should investigate:

(I was trying to get the same point across in a post that asked: Did the President of CBS News Have Anyone in Charge of Reading the Internet and Sending Alerts?)

All five of my clusters ultimately involve judgments made by Heyward, as Rather’s boss, and Moonves, as Heyward’s. The investigation has to go there or it avoids many of the story’s scariest parts. But look at the official charge: “What errors occurred in the preparation of the report and what actions need to be taken.” To me it’s clear: Heyward and Moonves tried to tell the Review Committeee to skip their part in a sad parade.

Of course this was noticed right away. (Transparency not being a CBS strong suit, the people there don’t seem to know when they are being transparent.) Ernest Miller at Corante pointed it out: “If this panel is not going to look into the terrible errors that took place after the broadcast, it is clear that CBS News is not truly interested in resolving this matter and holding itself to the highest standards of journalism.”

Jeff Jarvis (I nominated him for the committee, but that suggestion was not taken up) complained too: “CBS is charging them only to look into how the forged docs got onto the air, nothing after, nothing more. Big mistake. Muffed opportunity. Frightened and frightening lack of vision.”

They were right, but spoke a little too soon. The politics of the review situation are starting to work. The Wall Street Journal quotes Boccardi expanding the commitee’s charge, showing that he and Thornburgh are the ones in charge. Miller, a Yale law school fellow as well as a blogger, has the passage:

Mr. Boccardi, who retired from the AP in 2003, said the panel would study not only the process by which the Sept. 8 report anchored by Dan Rather was prepared and broadcast, but also the network’s reaction to questions challenging the piece after it aired. CBS and Mr. Rather initially stood firmly behind the story and the documents and that has generated almost as much criticism as the report itself did. “That is very much part of what we’re going to look at,” Mr. Boccardi said.

That Heyward and Moonves are not happy with the larger investigation is probably what’s behind this bit, also from the WSJ:

A CBS spokeswoman said the primary focus of the panel is the reporting of the story itself, not the aftermath. While there is no timeline for the panel to conclude its investigation, she said the hope is “it moves along at a good pace.”

Dan Rather understands what the presidents are doing. Listen to him widen the net of responsibility, getting on the record early with how involved the higher-ups actually were. (New York Times, Sep. 23)

In an interview on Monday, Mr. Rather said that on learning that Ms. Mapes had obtained the documents, he called Mr. Heyward.

“This is not verbatim,” Mr. Rather recalled. “But I said: ‘Andrew, if true, it’s breakthrough stuff. But I need to do something unusual. It may even be unique. I have to ask you to oversee, in a hands-on way, the handling of this story, because this is potentially the kind of thing that will cause great controversy.’

“He got it. He immediately agreed.”

In other words, the two men knew they were about to make a political decision. I wonder how many at CBS will get it and immediately agree with Roy Peter Clark of Poynter, a man with political imagination, who has a very good idea:

The independent investigators, now identified as Dick Thornburgh and Lou Boccardi, should conduct public hearings on the CBS scandal. These should be televised by CBS.

He’s not kidding— the CBS hearings televised on CBS. Something like this is needed if the network is going to get the public service mantle back quickly. You have to perform a big public service… on yourself. (Jeff Jarvis had a similar idea.) Clark’s vision of it:

Imagine a week of televised hearings in which the investigators would question Dan Rather, producers and reporters from “60 Minutes,” other news executives, and rank and file journalists from CBS. Perhaps other players outside the network could be called to shed some additional light: Political figures, press secretaries, other journalists, even ethicists. Thornburgh, who served as attorney general under President Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, would ask questions that shed light on our law and politics. Former president of AP Boccardi would help us measure the performance of CBS against enduring and emerging journalistic standards. Along the way, hundreds of other voices would weigh in, from talk radio, cable television, letters to the editor, and blogs.

My own judgment is that something dramatic is called for— like a week of televised hearings, but it could be some other creative idea. Let’s not forget there are CBS affiliates hearing from a lot of angry people. (See this.) There’s a campaign to get Bob Schieffer dumped from the debates. William Safire is asking about criminal charges. And some of the worst ever poll numbers for media trust have just been released.

A spectacular act of public listening might allow CBS to re-claim some initiative here.

Now Political Man—in the person of Dick Thornburgh, a Republican—will sit down with a career News Guy (Boccardi, party unknown) and they will sift through Dan Rather’s fallen tale of the Texas Air National Guard. They will have to reach a common understanding, which might be the most valuble “product” the review has. This is about politics. This is about news. This is about the politics of news, and such things as political ambition “in” journalism, which is not the same as partisan purpose, even though partisan purpose is involved too. And this is also about a raw attempt to discredit CBS, and Dan Rather— a long-held dream among some on the Right.

At stake are some big things: does CBS News have a political future? Will it run again? And can it ever win in this state?

After Matter: Notes, reactions and links…

Big Fallout: ‘60 Minutes’ Delays Report Questioning Reasons for Iraq War (New York Times, Sep. 25):

CBS said last night that the report on the war would not run before Nov. 2. “We now believe it would be inappropriate to air the report so close to the presidential election,” the spokeswoman, Kelli Edwards, said in a statement.

In a way that’s the network’s biggest admission yet: we don’t have the credibility now to run that story.

Wall Street Journal: “It is possible that the choice of Dick Thornburgh sends a signal to Republicans in terms of the desire by CBS to have legitimacy with this review panel,” said Bob Steele, a member of the ethics faculty at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies in St. Petersburg, Fla. However, Mr. Steele noted that Mr. Thornburgh “carries a political pedigree in a story that is so politicized that it seems debatable, and perhaps even unwise, to heighten the politicizing element of what is going on.”

Complications in the liberal media: Sumner Redstone says he is a liberal democrat who supports the Republicans. Why? They’re good for Viacom. Opinion Journal: “Guess Who’s a GOP Booster? The CEO of CBS’s parent company endorses President Bush.” Plus: Redstone quoted in the New York Post: “The investigation is ‘appropriate and the consequences will be appropriate,’ Redstone told the business magazine Forbes at a conference in Hong Kong.”

New twist on the bias debate: JD Lasica, Google News: Unintentionally skewing to the right? (Online Journalism Review.)

Vaugh Ververs in the National Journal (Sep. 24) says the Bush team has already rejected the idea of dumping CBS’s Bob Schieffer as debate moderator.

Why do you care if CBS goes under? A PressThink reader, Richard Frost, asked me that in the following note:

You seem very concerned that CBS News may be de-legitimized. I must confess, I don’t understand why this possibility should be so distressing to you. The press (and society) have long supported investigations, both legal and governmental, of business for any number of possible abuses; stock manipultations, environmental damage, sexual harassment, pension management, and insider trading come to mind. Proven wrongdoing can result in penalties, both civil and criminal, in which businesses may suffer tremendous loss of credibility or even be put out of business.

Why should CBS, or any media organization, be exempt? We are generally skeptical of proposals by any industry to regulate itself, especially when there has been a history of problems or an important breach of trust. We also think that harsh penalties are effective deterrents to serious wrongdoing by other players. Is there some reason to think that similar logic does not apply to the press? Or, if it does apply, is there some mitigating circumstance or fact that should take precedence?

Dorothy Rabinowitz, commentary in the Wall Street Journal: “… journalists might do better, in short, to wish Mr. Rather and company well in this hard time, and then declare the obvious. Which is that there are some things in human experience that ought to be granted their own uniqueness. On the grounds of its mysteries alone, the CBS-National Guard story deserves to be one of them.”

Jeffrey A. Dvorkin, NPR ombudsman on the blogs and the Rather story: “we must acknowledge that the blogs have truly arrived. It is hard for journalists who have led a sheltered life without public accountability to acknowledge that those days are over.”

Culmination of a 40-year-long indictment? Fascinating history of the conservative movement’s claims against the liberal media, tracing things back to Goldwater in 1964. John Podhoretz in the Weekly Standard: Dan Rather’s Day of Reckoning:

From the bloggers who blew the whistle on the fabrications to the millions of Internet news consumers who could not get enough of every twist and turn in the unbelievable unfolding story, there was a definite sense that history was turning on a dime, that the exposure of CBS’s infamy by non-journalists with a new ability to communicate through the Internet heralded the dawn of the New Information Age.

That’s why, even though the precipitating event was a genuine outrage—CBS News’s breathless use of forged documents accusing George W. Bush of disobeying a direct order from his National Guard superior in an all-too-obvious effort to sway the opinions of voters only 48 days before the 2004 election—the outrage has been accompanied by a spirit of giddiness and exhilaration almost from the moment the onslaught began.

This is a moment that’s been a very long time coming. For four decades now, conservatives have been convinced, with supreme justification, that the institutional, ideological, and cultural biases of the mainstream media represented a danger to the causes in which they believe and the ideas they hold dear. What has happened over the past weeks isn’t the beginning of a transformation. It’s the culmination of a 40-year-long indictment that has, at long last, led to a slam-dunk conviction.

Here’s a good round up of blog reactions to the CBS surrender on Sep. 20 from Joe Gandelman of The Moderate Voice.

Eric Boehlert in Salon: Too much about memos, too little about war. “As the election nears, will TV news finally get tough and really cover the Iraq war?”

Bruce Benidt in the Star Tribune: “The bad journalism isn’t just not checking out the possibly doctored documents — it’s breathlessly chasing the flashy story to begin with. CBS was hoist on its own petard. 60 Minutes and its spinoffs and imitators have reveled so long in their ‘gotcha’ approach that they’ve crossed from journalism through entertainment and into pandering.”

Scott Rosenberg of Salon, Bloggers and Journalists — Border crossings:

The challenge for professional journalists today is to understand how their role has changed. Their readers and their sources and their subjects now have access to an open microphone. And much of the time, it’s good stuff on that mike — amazing stories and smart people and valuable information. Ignoring all that isn’t just a missed opportunity; it’s bad journalism. Only a hack could believe that ignoring the “amateurs in pajamas” is a smart course.

Bloggers, meanwhile, lose out if they choose to stand off and lob spitballs at the media machine instead of engaging with it in creative ways. They have an unprecedented chance to insert new information and ideas into the clotted and previously inaccessible media bloodstream. Blogging for its own sake is its own reward, to be sure. But blogging to set records straight and change minds and influence the public sphere — that’s too valuable to pass on.

How blogs work.

Let’s say you’re a Talking Points Memo fan. News breaks on Valerie Palme. Oh, I want to hear what Josh Marshall has to say about that. It’s the most basic act in public affairs blogging. A few clicks and there’s Talking Points Memo lighting up the screen, the familar picture of Josh, thinking. Ah, he has a post up about the latest news. This is gonna be good…

And at that point we’re off, reader and writer have connected. The blog is working. A rhythm is established through reaction. With big news, more people react and come hunting for views. The big news on my beat has been Dan Rather. It dawned on Thursday Sep. 9, that there might be a real problem with the memos. Friday night I reacted:

Weekend Notes with Forgery Swrling in the Air. (Sep. 11)

Followed by some Big Think, lending context to the Rather events:

Stark Message for the Legacy Media. (Sep. 14)

The story grew. So did the blog’s explanations:

Rather’s Satisfaction: Mystifying Troubles at CBS. (Sep. 18)

And then… On Sep. 20th news strikes. CBS admits its story has come apart. The cycle starts over with same day reaction:

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

Posted by Jay Rosen at September 24, 2004 12:47 PM