Problems at CBS May Result in “Tamer, More Compliant News Division”

Originally posted: January 14, 2005

k-bodeWith the report detailing the flawed journalism at CBS News, one remaining loose string from the 2004 election has been tied up. CBS now joins CNN, ABC, NBC, The New York Times, The Washington Post and USA Today in providing journalism classes with examples of how not to practice the profession.

What CBS now expects you to believe is that mistakes were made and atoned for. Among the guilty parties, heads have rolled, and CBS will be better for the bitter experience.

That isn’t necessarily so and certainly isn’t the whole story.

This week’s report authored by former Associated Press President Lou Boccardi and ex-Attorney General Richard Thornburgh forced CBS to own up to some pretty shoddy journalism. The network allowed a “60 Minutes” producer with known liberal views to promise anonymity to a former officer in the Texas Air Guard, a known political enemy of George W. Bush. The documents he produced — second hand copies — were never properly authenticated, and the story of Bush as a laggard absentee during his Guard service was rushed onto “60 Minutes” with myopic zeal, fearing competitor USA Today might beat them to the story.

Bloggers lambasted the documents as forgeries and ABC News put on CBS’ own experts who said, in effect, we warned them not to go with this story. Dan Rather, who reported the Bush episode, arrogantly backhanded the critics, labeling them “the professional rumor mill of journalism.”

So the offending producer is fired, a few executives are asked to resign and CBS News will create a new position to oversee broadcast standards, all designed to create the impression that real change has taken place. But folks with long experience in the television news business see it differently.

To them, the real headline is that CBS used this fiasco to get rid of Dan Rather, whose “Evening News” has been mired in deadly third place in network ratings. In the midst of the controversy, Rather announced he will retire in March. His new CBS job will be at “60 Minutes.”

Second, the firings stopped one level below where they needed to for a real housecleaning. Leslie Moonves, CBS chairman, announced that news division President Andrew Heyward would keep his job. Heywood’s only mistake, said Moonves, was in trusting his lieutenants too much. That misplaced trust, was the critical lapse of judgment in the whole affair and reason enough to fire Heyward, who reviewed and approved the report on Bush’s Guard records before it was broadcast.

Later, when the controversy broke, Heyward ordered an internal review, which was ignored.

Rather said he had warned the news president that this was a big story and he wanted all the fact checking necessary to get it right. One former CBS hand said, “Dan took out a public insurance policy, placing responsibility right in Heyward’s lap.” Yet the Boccardi-Thornburgh report revealed that Rather claimed to be too busy even to look at the original “60 Minutes” report before it was broadcast. What was going on here?

Moonves says Heyward is “the perfect person to guide CBS out of this mess.” Of course. After all, he guided them in. Moonves had one overriding reason to keep Heyward around. CBS News now goes forward with a leader whose job was saved by a boss whose values have nothing to do with news. Moonves comes from the entertainment side of the network, which makes the money. Hollywood values, not news values. Insiders expect to see a tamer, more compliant news division.

The Boccardi-Thornburgh report did contain one piece of good news for CBS. The investigators found no reason to conclude that the original “60 Minutes” broadcast was politically motivated. So Rather and his producer are cleared of purposely trying to discredit Bush. For many, that will be the least believable part of the report.

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