Precinct 333

Monday, January 10, 2005

An Accounting From CBS

Well, the axe has fallen.

Four CBS News employees, including three executives, have been ousted for their role in preparing and reporting a disputed story about President Bush’s National Guard service.

The action was prompted by the report of an independent panel that concluded that CBS News failed to follow basic journalistic principles in the preparation and reporting of the piece. The panel also said CBS News had compounded that failure with a “rigid and blind” defense of the 60 Minutes Wednesday report.

Asked to resign were Senior Vice President Betsy West, who supervised CBS News primetime programs; 60 Minutes Wednesday Executive Producer Josh Howard; and Howard’s deputy, Senior Broadcast Producer Mary Murphy. The producer of the piece, Mary Mapes, was terminated.

The correspondent on the story, CBS News anchor Dan Rather, is stepping down as anchor of CBS Evening News.

The fact that the senior folks were dumped tells you how serious the problem really was, for all of Rather’s attempts to minimize the error. But they had to save face by allowing Rather to retire gracefully. Still, Rather is faulted as a cause of the problem.

The panel said a "myopic zeal" to be the first news organization to broadcast a groundbreaking story about Mr. Bush’s National Guard service was a key factor in explaining why CBS News had produced a story that was neither fair nor accurate and did not meet the organization’s internal standards.

The report said at least four factors that some observers described as a journalistic “Perfect Storm” had contributed to the decision to broadcast a piece that was seriously flawed.

"The combination of a new 60 Minutes Wednesday management team, great deference given to a highly respected producer and the network’s news anchor, competitive pressures, and a zealous belief in the truth of the segment seem to have led many to disregard some fundamental journalistic principles," the report said.

In other words, this report didn’t measure up to even the lowest standard, because they wanted to be first with a story they wanted to be true. A heck of a note for Dan to go out on.

The interesting point for me is the recommended changes.

The panel made a number of recommendations for changes, including:
· Appoint a senior Standards and Practices Executive, reporting directly to the President of CBS News, who would review all investigative reporting, use of confidential sources and authentication of documents. Personnel should feel comfortable going to this person confidentially and without fear of reprisal, with questions or concerns about particular reports.
· Foster an atmosphere in which competitive pressure is not allowed to prompt airing of reports before all investigation and vetting is done.
· Allow senior management to know the names of confidential sources as well as all relevant background about the person needed to make news judgments.
· Appoint a separate team, led by someone not involved in the original reporting, to look into any news report that is challenged.

All of these sound like good ideas. It would be a complete cultural change. The key question for me is whether or not the recommendations will be fully implemented. After all, it would severely hinder the CBS tradition of dicey scoops based upon questionable evidece that is more fitting for a tabloid than a major news outlet.


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