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January 10, 2005

After Trust Me Journalism Comes Openness: Rather Report Released

"...I hope that broken contraption "trust us, we're CBS," forces the network into the clear skies of a new idea: We used to do our reporting in a way that required the public to trust us, their professional journalists. It worked for a while, but times change. Now we have to do our reporting in a way that persuades the public to trust us. CBS News: are you up to it?

I like Jeff Jarvis’s take— that “calling for more commissions and committees and all that” just “puts yet more distance between the journalists and the public they are supposed to serve.” CBS, he says, “should be doing just the opposite: tearing down the walls, making journalists responsible for interacting with the public.” Then he gets it going:

This is bigger than Dan Rather. This is bigger than CBS News. This is about the news and the new relationship — the conversation — journalism must learn to have with the public, or the public will go have it without them.

It’s the last part that makes this week uncharted territory for CBS News and its leadership— and for us. They either participate in a new conversation about news… or the public will have it without them. And there is no doubt that the online public, at least, can do just that. It can take the Rather report and ask: where does broadcast news go from here? What has collapsed? What it’s going to take to re-build on a stronger foundation?

The public has its own press now, or the least the makings of one. That is new. It is in some way “pressing” for a larger role in the news; and as we have seen lately amateurs are actually capable of doing that. CBS would be wise to think about innovations in openness, an area where there has been very little thinking, experimentation or change in the news business. During its “trust us, we’re the pros” era, journalism was not concerned very much with openness. It was concerned with preventing interference in the news. It was concerned with professional autonomy— not transparency.

But now Linda Mason, the new Vice President for standards at CBS, has declared a new priority. “I think that day by day and story by story we’re going to earn back the public’s respect,” she told TV Newser on the day of the report’s release. “We’re going to be much more transparent. We’re going to tell our audience how we gather the news and report the facts.” (My italics.) But to become “much more transparent” will take changes in practice.

A simple example of a different approach: Sixty Minutes could publish on the Internet (as transcript and video) the full interviews from which each segment that airs is made. All interviews, every frame. Even the interviews that were not used. Producers and correspondents would instantly become more accountable for these interviews and the selections made from them. And in my view that would strengthen the journalism, make for better work; it would also be a revolution in accountability. CBS would be creating more value by publishing more source material, although it would also be more open to criticism and scrutiny.

Is it doable? I can’t say I know that. But no knows until someone determined and smart tries. I believe accountability journalism, which is the kind the professionals at CBS News still want to practice, won’t work any more unless the public can hold journalists themselves more accountable.

Personally, I hope that broken contraption “trust us, we’re CBS,” forces the network into the clear skies of a new idea: We used to do our reporting in a way that required the public to trust us, the professional journalists. It worked for a while, but times and platforms change. Now we have to do our reporting in a way that persuades the public to trust us.

Professionals at CBS News: are you up to it?

Publish the full interviews. That is but a single example that could be turned into fact next week. Hundreds of others are waiting to be activated in a similar way. If in the wake of the disaster a decision were taken at CBS to embark on a new course in openness, the professionals at CBS might soon realize that in having to re-build their division’s reputation they have been given a gift: The opportunity to clear away a crumbling and disordered professional house and pour a new foundation.

It would be new to base journalism on build-as-you-go trust, or on transparency and accountabilty in reporting methods. But that is the way to go if Big Journalism is itself to be held accountable. Likewise, it would be a new thought at CBS and elsewhere in the press— that conversation is the key to succeeding in news.

But if this report isn’t the shock that precedes new thinking in broadcast journalism, what report could ever be?

My other major reaction is that, like others, I am shocked that CBS News President Andrew Heyward still has his job. This is the reason.

As soon as the reporting of the Air National Guard story came under question, CBS had not one but two problems. The evidentiary problems with the story were one. The involvement—no, the immersion—of Dan Rather in the events thereafter was the other. Rather is the star of CBS News, the face of the brand, the personification of the news division. The anchor. Immediately it was clear that he had “bigfooted” the rest of the division and took over defense of a case in which he was accused. In effect, he was making policy for the network, as when he said that there is no investigation underway at CBS. There were huge dangers for Rather, for CBS News and for the network itself in allowing Rather to become so involved in defense of the story, which muted everyone else “under” Rather, leaving only Andrew Heyward, the boss, who did not act. He was the one who could have protected the brand and his friend, Dan Rather, by speaking truth to (star) power. The responsibility was his alone and he failed in the clutch.

After Matter: Notes, reactions and links.

UPDATE, Jan. 11 Dan Rather releases a statement. It says nothing remarkable and gives no indication of learning from disaster. (See below for the full text)

Jeff Jarvis: The only cure for what ails CBS News is to sell it. He has a list of plausible buyers.

Spinsanity’s Bryan Keefer at CJR Daily: “It’s been little noted so far, but one of the most damning aspects of the Thornburgh/Boccardi Panel report about CBS’s September 8, 2004 segment on President Bush’s Texas Air National Guard service is its description of the way the network allowed its news division to morph into a PR machine in defense of itself.”

Captain’s Quarters on how the role of bloggers is ignored or minimized by the review panel and Big Journalism accounts of the report.

Dan Gillmor on the same point: “It would have been smarter for CBS to thank, not make semi-snide remarks about, the bloggers who raised the important questions about the authenticity of the memos. But you can’t have everything.”

Smarter for CBS to thank bloggers? More truthful, sure, but why do you say smarter, Dan?

Your viewers know more than you do. If people at CBS knew about open source journalism they might have saved themselves a lot of pain. Thornburgh: “One of the things I think that surprised us was the fact that nobody within the CBS family seemed to have any appreciation of how tricky the process of authenticating documents is.” (From AP story.) This “appreciation” did exist online. But CBS didn’t know then about the powers of distributed journalism. And it wasn’t listening to the public conversation about its own report.

PressThink, Sep. 20, 2004: Did the President of CBS News Have Anyone in Charge of Reading the Internet? “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.”

Dan Rather, Statement on Memos, Sep. 20

Lawyer and blogger Patterico likes my suggestion about publishing the full interviews— and says it will never happen.

The Emotional Pumpkin likes the full-transcripts-on-the-Web suggestion: “Really, it’s a win-win situation. The public gets the transparency it’s so hungry for, and CBS instantly gets back some credibility, if only for displaying its willingness to be more open with the viewing public.”

Mark Cooper of The Nation and his own blog says I am on the right track with my suggestion. “As to CBS making this sort of paradigm shift — fat chance. No question in my mind that ‘the contraption’ – like all obsolete devices – will eventually be scrapped. But not quite yet. There’s still too much money being made off the old model. Only when a few more conflagrations burn through these guys’ pockets are we likely to see any major re-thinking.”

Ernest Miller at Corante: Why Does CBS News President Andrew Heyward Still Have His Job? and don’t miss his second post, Omissions and Other Critiques of the CBS News Report. Detailed and analytical.

Joe Gandelman, CBS’ Memogate Report Comes Out But It Won’t Stem The Controversy.

How did Heyward survive? Bill Carter, New York Times, Jan 11:

Mr. Moonves said he wanted to reinforce the leadership of Mr. Heyward and pointed to the panel’s conclusions that he made an effort to question the authentication offered for the documents in the report.

“It still happened under his watch,” Mr. Moonves said. “But I felt he did his job. He asked the questions that needed to be asked.”

David Blum in the New York Sun:

The only executive at CBS who relentlessly pushed Ms. Mapes to substantiate her reporting seems to have been its chief spinmeister; the report quotes liberally from e-mails sent by Gil Schwartz, the network’s executive vice president for communications, including one to Mr. Heyward five days after the piece aired, under the subject line Total Red Alert “Our entire reputation as a news division now rests on our fielding a couple of experts on our side TODAY,” Mr. Schwartz wrote. Why wasn’t Mr. Heyward writing tough e-mails like that?

Baltimore Sun:

“The issue for the viewer is: ‘Have you told me what you’ve really learned from this incident, and have you assured me that you’ve now put procedures in place that it won’t happen again at any CBS program?’” said Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism. “I don’t think they’ve told what, if anything, they’ve really learned.”

Report of the Independent Review Panel (pdf file.)

Les Moonves, Chairman of CBS, statement in response to panel report (pdf file)

Statement of fired Sixty Minutes producer Mary Mapes.

Epilogue: Dan Rather releases a statement:

The panel report is part of a process — a necessary process to deal with a difficult issue — at the end of which four good people have lost their jobs. My strongest reaction is one of sadness and concern for those individuals whom I know and with whom I have worked. It would be a shame if we let this matter, troubling as it is, obscure their dedication and good work over the years.

Yet good can come from this process if CBS News, and the hundreds of able professionals who labor every day to fill an essential public service in an open society, emerge with a renewed dedication to journalism of the highest quality. We should take seriously the admonition of the report’s authors to do our job well and carefully, but also their parallel admonition not to be afraid to cover important and controversial issues.

CBS News is a great institution with a distinct and precious legacy. I have been here through good times, and not so good times. I have seen us overcome adversity before. I am convinced we can do so again. That must be our focus and priority. And we can fulfill that objective by getting back to business and doing our jobs better than ever.

Lest anyone have any doubt, I have read the report, I take it seriously, and I shall keep its lessons well in mind.

Dan Rather

Posted by Jay Rosen at January 10, 2005 5:08 PM