Tuesday, January 11, 2005
Politics at CBS: One of the items that has been the subject of guffaws and charges of "whitewash" on the right side of the blogosphere regarding the independent report on the CBS forged documents fiasco is the "finding" that there was no political bias behind the "60 Minutes Wednesday" report. Both Dan Rather and Mary Mapes were asked by the investigators if they had a political agenda, and both, unsurprisingly, deny it.
That denial effectively prevents Lou Boccardi and Dick Thornburgh from saying what is really obvious to anyone not suffering from Bush Derangement Syndrome -- that they were out to hurt President Bush. Thornburgh and Boccardi will only go that far if they can get a confession -- no amount of incriminating evidence short of that can clear the bar they've set.
For comparison, let me set up a situation where the politics are reversed.
In the waning days of the 2004 campaign, there were rumors in the blogosphere and elsewhere -- prompted by Sen. John F. Kerry's refusal to release all of his military records and the reissuance of his commendations in the early 1980s -- that Kerry had received something less than an honorable discharge from the military.
Given that rumor, let's say that a conservative with demonstrated hostility toward Sen. Kerry and a less than completely trustworthy reputation (let's call him William Armstrong) comes to CBS News with documents from Sen. Kerry's "personal files" that show that he received a "general discharge" -- not an honorable discharge -- from the Navy. This would undoubtedly crush the Kerry campaign, but it's also a good story -- a story other news organizations are also pursuing. [Remember, this is fiction.] Does anyone really believe that Mapes and Rather would ignore warnings from document examiners that the "discharge" is probably fake? Would Rather and Mapes stand behind "William Armstrong" as an unimpeachable source? Would they rush to air the document without double- and triple-checking every last thing about it?
The only way that story gets on the air on CBS is if the producers, reporter and everyone involved with the process are partisan hacks -- not if they were professional journalists. Professional journalists don't ignore all of those red flags.
However, the CBS report repeatedly outlines error after journalistic error made by CBS News and Mapes as they ignored red flag after red flag. It gets to the point that Mapes wasn't acting like a journalist at all, she was acting as a partisan hack -- and no one at CBS stopped her.
The problem CBS News faced is that there was no one in the production process who was a conservative (or if there was, they wielded no power). A conservative editor, executive or producer would look at a story that is damaging to -- for lack of a better term -- his "guy" and challenge it on all fronts. The questions that were never asked, would get asked. The concerns of the document examiners would get addressed.
In the end, with a conservative in the process, this story would've never aired.
This works both ways. A newsroom full of conservatives would be susceptible to the same sorts of ideological problems. What I'm arguing against here is political homogeny. Without diversity of opinion, journalism is in trouble.
CBS would be well-advised to consider hiring a few people from Fox News -- it would help both organizations.