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Scandal proof (continued)

As for Heyward, he appears to have been saved not for doing the right thing, but for simply saying the right thing. At one point, the report notes that on September 10, two days after the segment aired, Heyward "directed Betsy West [a senior vice-president who was asked to resign this week] ... to investigate the details of the [document] examiners’ opinions and confidential sources that allegedly supported the Segment. No such investigation was done at that time. Had this directive been followed promptly, the Panel does not believe that 60 Minutes Wednesday would have publicly defended the Segment for another 10 days."

That’s right. Heyward, the head guy, was ignored. And he apparently did nothing about it — certainly not soon enough to stave off disaster.

"Can you imagine delegating this?" asks Alex Jones, director of the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics, and Public Policy, at Harvard’s Kennedy School. "CBS’s whole franchise was on the line. It would seem to me that this was the moment for the president to be directly involved, not issuing orders. But that may not be the way he operates, and it may not be the way the place runs."

Trouble is, by keeping Heyward in his position, CBS president Leslie Moonves appears to be rewarding him for expressing laudable thoughts while ignoring his dysfunctional management style. As for deciding that Rather’s pending retirement as anchor of the CBS Evening News is punishment enough — well, let the record show that he will continue as a reporter for 60 Minutes, the very program whose reputation he helped tarnish. There’s something very odd about that, no?

The mess that CBS created never would have set off such a spectacular explosion if it hadn’t played into the culture war over so-called liberal media bias. On Monday night, for instance, former CBS News staffer–turned–ideological scold Bernard Goldberg appeared on Fox News’s Hannity & Colmes to instruct, "This wouldn’t have happened if it had been about John Kerry instead of George Bush." If you closed your eyes, you could almost forget that Fox did more than any other outlet to promote the false claims of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, who disparaged Kerry’s war record.

The CBS report found no evidence of liberal bias, even though it was highly critical of Mapes for contacting the Kerry campaign in the hopes of pushing her story forward. "Good for CBS for coming clean about the process, but good luck convincing its viewers about the lack of partisan motives," the Wall Street Journal editorialized on Tuesday. John Hinderaker, one of the bloggers at Power Line, which was among the first to raise questions about the Killian memos, added that "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."

Among certain elements on the conservative side of the spectrum, the notion of liberal bias is taken as an article of faith, as though the likelihood that Dan Rather and Mary Mapes voted for Kerry is proof that their journalistic motives are suspect. Yet all you have to do is think back to the presidency of Bill Clinton to understand how silly that is. The mainstream media were eager and willing participants in the Republican attempt to drive Clinton out of office over oral sex, not because of their political orientation, but because it was a lurid and entertaining story. It is ever thus.

The conservative-leaning Bob Zelnick, a former ABC News correspondent who now chairs Boston University’s journalism department, says that if he had been part of the panel, his "working thesis" would have been that CBS News was a hotbed of "left-wing, pro-Kerry liberals who were anxious to screw the president." But he says he accepts the panel’s finding, based on dozens of interviews, that such was not the case. "I was struck, in reading the report, by the carefulness of the commission in not going beyond the evidence that was obtained," Zelnick says. Adds Alex Jones, whose views are generally liberal: "You would be foolish to think that there is no political motivation mixed in. I think that’s always the case. But this is about falling in love with the story."

Both Zelnick and Jones draw a parallel between the CBS report and the Tailwind story of 1998 — yet another media scandal, this one involving a CNN story, later retracted, that US forces in Southeast Asia had used nerve gas in the late 1960s. As with the current situation, those most directly involved in the piece continued to insist on its accuracy long after they had been forced out of CNN. As with CBS, the Tailwind story involved a well-known frontman — Peter Arnett — who later admitted he knew very little about the piece he had narrated. And as with CBS, the top executives at CNN, Tom Johnson and Rick Kaplan, survived initially. But they — and Arnett — were eased out after the furor had died down.

Zelnick, for one, suspects that will happen with Andrew Heyward and Dan Rather. Will it matter? Perhaps. More than anything, the CBS report reveals a news operation that is disorganized, rushed, and more interested in making a splash than in getting it right. Wholesale change may be precisely what’s needed. But despite a series of reforms rolled out on Monday that are supposed to prevent such a calamity from happening again, the competitive pressures remain.

Maybe CBS News can change its ways. But you can be sure there will be another media scandal to occupy our attention soon enough. Jones notes that revelations over conservative commentator Armstrong Williams’s taking $240,000 in secret payments from the Department of Education have been drowned out this week because of the CBS report. Perhaps next week we’ll get back to that, pursuing the question of whether Williams was the only journalist on the take. And if that doesn’t work out — well, there will be something new and scandalous soon enough. There always is.

Dan Kennedy can be reached at dkennedy[a]phx.com. Read his Media Log at BostonPhoenix.com.

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Issue Date: January 14 - 20, 2005
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