Tuesday, January 11, 2005

At Least Two Of The CBS Remedies Will Not Work Well

At least two of the remedies announced by CBS in the wake of the independent panel report on the network's much-criticized broadcast on President Bush's Air National Guard service are not apt to work out well, in my view.

First, CBS said it will name an independent group of reporters to fact-check the findings of its investigative teams on a story such as this. Second, it indicated it will no longer let the original team respond in broadcasts to later criticisms of its work.

Neither are really practical.

Journalistic organizations must trust the people assigned to do stories, especially entailing investigative work. Continually reviewing their findings will only delay presentation beyond reasonable time limits and introduce backbiting into the newsroom.

As far as responding to criticisms, it is the group that has done the original reporting and knows the story best that can most ably respond to questions. It was not improper, in my view, for Rather to defend the original report, as long as he believed in it. It was improper for him to be forced into apologizing on the air, if he still believed in it, as he now indicates he does.

Unless there is trust within a newsroom, the work cannot proceed expeditiously. If such trust does not exist, then new people must be found to do the work (as CBS is doing now; it has fired four people and it will have to name new ones).

As for the question whether there was bias by producer Mary Mapes, anchor Dan Rather and others in the CBS reporting on Bush and his National Guard service, I do not regard that as the central question. The central question is whether the report was accurate, and it is noteworthy that even at this late date the independent panel will not take a position that it was inaccurate, and Rather states he still believes it was accurate.

The fact is that it is foolish for anyone to assume that reporters don't have biases, either consciously or subconsciously. It has usually been assumed that good reporters can overcome their biases and still report fairly and I know countless instances in which this has been accomplished.

Mistakes will occur in journalism, especially since reporters are seldom on the spot to determine for themselves to a certainty what has happened in a situation.

So I'm not as shocked as many pretend to be that a mistake may have been made in this case. Mistakes are made all the time and frequently have to be corrected. CBS should do so in this matter, if its managers now believe it was wrong. But the network should not allow such admissions to prevent them from doing investigative work aggressively in the future.

A fruitful subject of inquiry in the CBS situation, however, may be whether cost-cutting in the network and its third place position among the nightly network newscasts may have made mistakes more likely by putting their people under more pressure.


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