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September 16, 2005

The Net Knows More Than You: An Open Letter to the People of CBS News

It's the anniversary of the big collapse at CBS over the National Guard Memos. "People of CBS News, you've had a year to think about it. How, if you are dedicated to truthtelling, could you have permitted the near destruction of your network's reputation for telling the truth? What explains your silence, September 9-20, 2004?"

I was asked to be the first guest blogger at Public Eye, the new blog that acts like an ombudsman (sort of) at CBS News. This ran there today under the title, “Outside Voices: Jay Rosen’s Open Letter To CBS.” Here is my slightly expanded version.

To: The People of CBS News
From: Jay Rosen
Re: The Internet and You

Welcome to the Internet, everyone. And I do mean everyone. According to Larry Kramer, the boss of CBS Digital, “all 1,500 people at CBS News now also contribute to” That means you’re all Web journalists now— by decree, as it were.

Kramer, after selling to Dow Jones and making a bundle, told CJR Daily that what excited him about coming to CBS was running an online news operation “that is funded largely by television revenues.” Not having a cable network has become an advantage for CBS, because “with the advent of broadband on the Web, the Web is really a much more attractive place to get news, even news video, now.” In other words, the web site is your cable channel.

Things are looking up for you guys. Public Eye is part of that. The transparency revolution in network news has started, and CBS gets the credit for going first. But I want to make sure you understand it, and how we got here.

Dick Meyer, editorial director of, says here that Public Eye is not a response to the “the National Guard memo disaster at ‘60 Minutes: Wednesday’ and the Thornburgh-Bocardi report on it that came out in January 2005.” That sounds like a party line to me, and I don’t know what good is served by it.

Reading the Signs

Exactly a year ago—during that flight from truthtelling that overcame your network when Sixty Minutes aired its doomed segment on President Bush’s National Guard service—I was frequently on the phone with reporters from the big national newspapers, who were calling for quotes and impressions. (I had been writing about the episode at my blog, PressThink.)

We—the reporters and I—knew the story was in grave trouble. And we could never figure out why the people running CBS News did not seem to know. After all, they were journalists, capable of reading the signs.

Let’s take September 14, 2004, a typical day in the scandal. There were no developments that confirmed CBS’s account, and many developments that undermined it. On that day:

Why did he do it? How could he say it?

Part of the Same Ecosystem

“I had serious suspicions about the authenticity of the documents on the morning after they were aired,” said Michael Dobbs of the Washington Post on September 21st. “I find it difficult to believe that people in CBS did not develop similar doubts soon afterward.”

Me too: impossible to believe. But what happened to those doubts?

Within hours of the broadcast, the bloggers (some of them enemies of the network) were raising rude questions about the documents, running clever tests of their own, getting named experts to say there was something wrong here, while CBS was still refusing to say who its experts were. Nightline did the “serious suspicions” story that night (September 9th), and the Washington Post published one the next day.

As Jessie Walker of Reason magazine later wrote: “The professional media drew on the bloggers for ideas; the bloggers in turn linked to the professionals’ reports. The old media and the new media weren’t at loggerheads with each other… They complemented each other. They were part of the same ecosystem.”

Now the people of CBS News have officially joined that system, or been joined to it by Kramer’s strategy, and the broader thinking that’s been going on at the network since the retirement of Dan Rather from the anchor’s chair.

Why do people read blogs? On September 20th of last year I did a post called: “Did the President of CBS News Have Anyone in Charge of Reading the Internet and Sending Alerts?” (He didn’t.) This week is Public Eye’s debut. It puts Vaughn Ververs and his staff in charge of reading the Internet and sending alerts.

On January 10th of this year I suggested at my blog that CBS News “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.” The Web makes it doable and it would help with transparency, I said.

Six months later Larry Kramer told CJR Daily: “We’re going to be offering up what used to be considered just work product… there’s no reason we can’t allow our users to see the whole thirty-minute interview if they want.” The Web makes it possible and it would help with transparency, he said.

See how we complement each other?

Transparency Will Change You

“If you’re looking for a journalism professor to render absolute verdicts, this probably isn’t the place to be,” Vaughn wrote in his first post at Public Eye. Well, I’m a journalism professor, and here is my verdict: Transparency will absolutely change you, and it already has. If you don’t change with it, you will lose.

We sometimes forget that the sad events at CBS News a year ago began with an act of transparency. After broadcasting its report (called “For the Record”) Sixty Minutes put the Killian Memos on the Net. That’s how the whole thing started.

People of CBS News, the Net knows more than you. The chances are fairly high that a given producer at CBS would not know enough southern history to grasp what Senator Trent Lott was actually saying when he praised Strom Thurmond’s 1948 campaign for president. The chances of the blogosphere not knowing this background are zero.

“The sheer number of blogs, and the speed of response, make errors hard to sustain for very long,” writes Andrew Sullivan. “The collective mind is also a corrective mind.”

Now we are met in happier circumstances, launch week for Public Eye. Instead of an ombudsman, a weblog and staff to create a dialogue that acts like an ombudsman. Good idea. It worked well here, narrowing the differences between the National Review’s media blogger, Stephen Spruiell, and CBS News.

It didn’t work so well here. Tuesday, the CBS Evening News ended with an heart-warmer (a guy who loves ducks.) Public Eye jumps in with a question: “With such an overwhelming amount of news about Hurricane Katrina—most of it depressing—when and how does a broadcast decide that it’s time to include something unrelated and upbeat?” Listen to the answers Hillary Profita got:

PE spoke with Ingrid Ciprian-Matthews, senior broadcast producer for the “Evening News,” about how the decision to include Blackstone’s piece came about.

“It is two weeks plus after the hurricane,” said Ciprian-Matthews, “and we felt like it was the right time to do something else. That kind of feature was uplifting and didn’t detract from hurricane coverage and it just felt like the right time to do that.”

The Old Opacity

It just felt right. Uplifting. Didn’t detract. That’s her answer. Todd Gitlin, a professor at Columbia University, is brought in: “They think, and they may be right, that there is a portion of the audience that badly wants these gestures of reassurance and would flee otherwise.” Ciprian-Matthews says no way…

“Yesterday, we weren’t thinking, should we do something so that we don’t lose audience? The day comes when you walk in and say, we’ll cover the big headlines, but let’s also go with something a little more uplifting. It was a good story and that’s why we did it, because it was a good, well done piece.”

Her non-reasons are not the new transparency, but the old opacity:

Q. Mr. County Executive, could you tell us how and why the decision was made to build a waste treatment plan near all these poor people’s homes?

A. A day comes when it just feels right to go with the decision we made, and that’s what we did, we went with it. We made it because it’s a good decision.

I don’t think Ciprian-Matthews is trying to snow us. That’s the scary part: she gave us the explanation that in her mind exists! Maybe in the newsroom that counts as “reason.” To the rest of the world it sounds empty and tautological. She would have been better of with no comment.

I’ve been listening to journalists say it for fifteen years: the public doesn’t understand how we work, we have to explain ourselves more. Public Eye, if it works, is going to reveal when there are no good explanations— or none that make sense beyond newsroom culture. Transparency, you see, does not automatically increase trust. It could raise the curtain on an explanatory show that flops. It’s not enough to be open. You also have to have something insightful to say.

People of CBS News, you’ve had a year to think about it. How, if you are dedicated to truthtelling, could you have permitted the near destruction of your network’s reputation for telling the truth, during the events I have discussed? What explains your silence, September 9th to 20th, 2004? Did you think you were helping CBS by suppressing the doubts and disbelief you must have felt? Did you learn anything from the experience?

You may think you’re past all that. You may think: it’s done, old news. But this is supposed to be a conversation, and I want to know, and I am not alone. So as I like to say at my own blog, if you have a thought hit the comment button. And congratulations, all of you, on making it to the Web.

After Matter: Notes, reactions & links

You can check the comments at Public Eye to see if anyone from CBS News takes up my questions. Not that I expect it…

Jeff Jarvis picks up on that theme:

It’s a pity that the people of CBS News do not speak back.

I fear they’ll fear doing that — and also that they’ll look at the post and see that, unfortunately, trolls have moved into the comments and the discussion there is not deep. That is not helped by CBS’ inexplicable decision to put a 500-character limit on comments (this isn’t TV, folks: bits are not scarce) as well as its decision to shut off comments after 24 hours (time’s no longer scarce, either, guys). The discussion over at Jay’s blog, under the same essay, is much better: more substance, more intelligence, more relevance, more to chew on.

Jeff also says that I’ve “built a community of conversation — around what we used to think of as a reputation.” I don’t know. To me the conversation in comments is barely hanging on through the culture war static, while the proportion of witless and repetitive MSM-bashing swells. There’s witless and repetitive Bush bashing too.

I know what he meant and I thank him for the observation, but I have to disagree with Jarvis that there is any PressThink “community,” which to me implies shared values. It’s a public space with regular characters, and some great and passionate writers who will put a lot of thought into their posts. I am very grateful to them. To me, comment threads, which I watch over very carefully, are nine-tenths frustration and they usually fail. But then lots of people say they’re the best part of PressThink, so…

Public Eye debuted with a terrible comment system. (But at least it has one; this site doesn’t.) Here’s Dick Meyer, editorial director at, trying to get a handle on problems with Public Eye’s set up:

Jeff Jarvis, early adviser to and tough critic of Public Eye, has remarked on the quantity and quality of the comments on Public Eye. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit we expected and probably hoped for more, but we were also warned that it takes time, lots of it. We’ve received plenty of brainy and contrarian comments, for sure. Some nice ones, too. And we’ve been swamped by useful criticism and tips, though a lot of it has come via e-mail not comments.

Still, we’d like a better conversation, more substantive, less knee-jerk MSM-bashing. Suggestions?

That’s CBS News asking for your suggestions… Also, Dick Meyer did drop into Buzzmachine’s comments.

And… Dick Meyer, editorial director,, in comments here:

First of all, thanks for the Open Letter to CBS News that we posted on Friday. I was proud to have it on Public Eye and it helped get us off to a frisky start. I say that event though you essentially called me a liar in your piece… I also thought you were gratuitously snarky on the ducks piece, nasty about the senior producer who talked about it without articulating any actual argument as to why she deserved your personal and condescending scorn.

There’s more, so read it and my reply.

Jay Rosen at Dick Meyer’s Public Eye post asking for suggestions on their comment system: “You should have someone research it: current finding among students of the Web is that for large sites moderated threads are the only real answer. An unmoderated forum will always fail.”

Bill Quick, the proprietor at Daily Pundit, has an extremely intelligent response to this post. Here’s an excerpt:

Because, you see, the blog form is not a magic wand. It can be used to conceal, to make opaque (or to continue opacity) just as easily as it can be used to reveal. Blogs are just as transparent as the intentions of those who write them. To repeat what Jay asked earlier, “How, if they are dedicated to truthtelling….?” I think to this day, Jay assumes that CBS was, and is, dedicated to truthtelling. [But if] they were, they would have admitted that those documents were forged, and they would have moved heaven and earth to expose and tell the truth about how that came to happen.

Read the rest.

Profile of Public Eye editor Vaughn Ververs in Broadcasting & Cable magazine: CBS News Sentry Assumes Post.

Prior PressThink posts on CBS, Dan Rather and the Killian Memos:

Posted by Jay Rosen at September 16, 2005 1:07 PM