A Rather Sad Post Mortem

The New York Times reports on what it calls, somewhat refreshingly, a “Post-Mortem of a Broadcast Disaster.” The Times doesn’t report much that is new, but the overall prognosis is pretty depressing:

[A] production staff member said the staff at CBS did not feel powerful enough to bring about change. “We have no juice,” the staff member said. “We’re a dying business, and this didn’t help us. Some people feel like CBS News could be out of business in five years.”

I don’t think that will happen, but I also don’t think the people at CBS understand why they are in a tailspin, and have been for some years. The fundamental problem, I think, has been a willingness to sacrifice accuracy in order to serve political objectives.
This description of the role of Mary Mapes in the 60 Minutes fiasco is, I think, revealing:

[T]he central explanation for how CBS went wrong seemed to be a case of a star producer overruling the better judgments of an entire series of top news executives. One senior CBS executive said many staff members seemed to be more afraid of Ms. Mapes than of Mr. Heyward, which could help undermine his position with the staff.

I think there is more to the story than this, but the Thornburgh report makes clear how vital Mapes’s role was, and often leaves the reader wondering where the adults were, if there are any still working for CBS News. Still, the description of the tyrannical Ms. Mapes is familiar to us all.
We’ve already written that the Thornburgh report’s most ludicrous feature is its half-hearted attempt to clear CBS of the charge of political bias. The Times doesn’t seem to buy that theory, either:

Though Mr. Moonves and other CBS executives yesterday pointed to the panel’s exoneration of the network on charges of political bias against the president, not everyone agreed that it played no role at all.
“It sounds like you had a star reporter here who fell in love with a story,” [Alex] Jones [director of the Shorenstein Center on Press and Politics at Harvard University] said. “Her previous work had given her a reputation sufficient to bowl over everyone else. It seems like it was a combination of competitive pressure, hubris and a little politics. I think it’s foolish to separate this entirely from politics, no matter what the report says. All in all that’s a witches’ brew.”

True enough, but let me offer this alternative theory: the fundamental problem that led to the downfall of 60 Minutes and, perhaps, CBS News, was the fact that no one involved in the reportorial or editorial process was a Republican or a conservative. If there had been anyone in the organization who did not share Mary Mapes’s politics, who was not desperate to counteract the Swift Boat Vets and deliver the election to the Democrats, then certain obvious questions would have been asked: Where, exactly, did these documents come from? What reason is there to think that they really originated in the “personal files” of a long-dead National Guard officer, if his family has no knowledge of them? How did such modern-looking memos come to be produced in the early 1970s? How can these critical memos, allegedly by Jerry Killian, be reconciled with the glowing evaluations of Lt. Bush that Killian signed? Why haven’t you interviewed General “Buck” Staudt, who is casually slandered in one of the alleged memos? Why didn’t you show the memos to General Bobby Hodges, rather than reading phrases from them to him over the telephone? Isn’t it a funny coincidence that these “newly discovered” memos are attributed to the one person in this story who is conveniently dead?
And so on, ad nearly infinitum. But, because virtually everyone in the CBS News organization shared Mary Mapes’s politics and objective (i.e., the election of John Kerry), skeptical questions were not asked. If there is a single overriding explanation for how a fake story, intended to influence a Presidential election through the use of forged documents, could have been promulgated by 60 Minutes, it is the lack of diversity at CBS News.
For some years now, the party line of the mainstream media has been: of course we’re pretty much all Democrats, but that doesn’t influence our news coverage. If nothing else, Rathergate should put that defense to rest once and for all.
In a couple of weeks, I will be participating in a conference at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, sponsored by the Kennedy School along with the Harvard Law School and the Shorenstein Center on Press and Politics. The subject will be journalism, blogging, credibility and ethics. Judging from the list of participants, I suspect that most of the discussion may be about how bloggers can become more credible by adopting the standards of mainstream journalists. My own perspective will be a bit different. So far, the blogosphere has a far better record of honesty and accuracy than mainstream organs like the New York Times and CBS. This isn’t entirely a matter of personality; it is also a function of the checks and balances of the blogosphere, which are far stronger and more effective than the alleged “checks and balances” of the mainstream media, which, in the absence of political and intellectual diversity, may not operate at all.
More about this later.


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