Making CBS play fair
Years ago I was part of an odd panel discussion sponsored by the American Society of Newspaper Editors. It was a flat-footed version of those role-playing dramas that Fred Friendly constructed so brilliantly for PBS, the ones where he would walk around the room posing hypothetical questions that often tied famous journalists up in ethical knots. I was assigned the role of a newspaper editor who had the option of running a political expose that would have had many wondrous effects on his town but that simply did not check out as true. I said I wouldn't run the story until my reporters nailed it down. This apparently unexpected position brought the whole poorly thought-out hypothetical to a screeching halt. No complex ethical dilemmas could be built on it. The Fred Friendly stand-in that day, assigned the role of badgering me to run the big story that didn't check out, was Dan Rather.
This brings us to a little-asked question about Rathergate: Why was CBS so determined to broadcast its alleged scoop about George Bush's National Guard service before the story was properly checked out? Four of the six documents involved had been in the possession of 60 Minutes for only two or three days, and three of the four experts consulted by the network said they couldn't authenticate them. Why didn't CBS just wait a week and do some elementary checking? A halfway decent high school paper would have done as much. One explanation is that the Democrats and much of the Democrat-friendly media were about to reopen the subject of Bush's Guard service as a payback for the August damage done to John Kerry by the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. Maybe CBS feared losing its big scoop. More likely it was just reluctant to come in behind the new wave of retaliatory Bush-bashing instead of leading it.
Another factor is the familiar peril of groupthink. If your newsroom is filled with people who think and vote the same way and who are convinced that Bush is a malevolent character who must be stopped, you are more likely to run through red lights than you would be if a similar half-baked story was about to be sprung on someone you cared about.
What CBS produced was the worst press scandal of our era, revealing a depth of ineptitude and arrogance that even the network's worst critics hardly suspected. Internet bloggers shredded the 60 Minutes story within three hours of the broadcast's end. Some bloggers were challenging the authenticity of the documents while the program was still being shown on the West Coast. Within a day, the mainstream press picked up the story and further devastated 60 Minutes. After five days, with the CBS story totally discredited, Rather called his critics "partisan" and said they "can't deny the core truth of this story." He also said that if there was something wrong with the documents, he would like to be the one to break the story--a story that had been broken days before but amazingly not noticed by him.
Pajama game. When the mistakes-were-made semiapology finally came, Rather emitted the phrase "if I knew then what I know now." But all he had to do to know it then was to turn on his computer or pick up a copy of the Washington Post. The network hostility to Internet commentary was obvious. One CBS news executive referred to bloggers as people writing in their pajamas (i.e., not members of our esteemed guild). Rather associated them with rumor and propaganda. This seems to mean that many in the mainstream press still don't understand bloggers and tend to associate them with the Drudge Report on its worst day. Bloggers make their case with hyperlinks to primary sources and other data. Arguments without authority count for nothing, and soft-headed analyses and hoaxes are quickly exposed. As RealClear Politics said, it's a fast-moving, "very transparent, self-correcting environment ultimately based on facts."
Often contrasted with the entrenched big-time media, the bloggers are becoming part of the mainstream. Think of them as the outsourced post-publication checking department of the big-time news media. Dan Rather, or somebody at CBS, should surely take a look.
One good blogger, Jay Rosen of New York University's journalism school, calls the CBS fiasco "just one part of a massive institutional failure at CBS, much of it still to be uncovered." It produced "a full-fledged credibility crisis" and an opportunity for CBS's detractors to "damage beyond recognition one of the big players." Just so. But the goal should be to make CBS more honest, not to delegitimize it or drive it out of business. Already there are calls for congressional hearings--a bad idea. Do we want an all-out vengeful assault on CBS, or do we simply want the network to come to its senses and play stories straight?
This story appears in the October 4, 2004 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.