It's been four and a half months since CBS aired a two-hour prime-time special titled "The Incredible Discovery of Noah's Ark" that was immediately attacked by some scholars as a sham. It's been more than a week since Time magazine disclosed that a large hunk of the documentary-style program were an apparent hoax and since the Associated Press did a follow-up story on the Time report.
And still CBS has not aired a correction. Or an elaboration. Or anything.
"Clearly, we are concerned about it, and we're investigating and trying to get substantiation from the producer," CBS spokeswoman Susan Tick said Tuesday in response to a call from The Times.
What this incident illuminates, however, is not only the sloppiness of CBS in verifying the accuracy of non-news information programs it airs but also its incredible double standard regarding truth in news and entertainment programming.
CBS has not uttered a word on television informing the estimated 20 million Americans who watched and possibly believed this program, which was produced by Sun International Pictures of Utah, that its pseudo science--appearing to confirm the creationist theory that Noah's ark existed--may have been substantially false. That, among other things:
* George Jammal, a man who claimed on the program to have visited Turkey's Mount Ararat in 1984 and returned with a chunk of Noah's ark, apparently had never been there.
* The wood that part-time actor Jammal held in his hand as proof, and which he described as "a gift from God," was apparently phony, a piece of contemporary pine treated to look like the real thing.
* Jammal had been coached for his TV "performance" by Gerald Larue, a professor emeritus of biblical history and archeology at the University of Southern California, who told Time and the Associated Press that he perpetuated this trickery to demonstrate the sloppy research of Sun International Pictures.
"They didn't test the wood," Larue told the Associated Press. "They didn't even check on Jammal. They just bought into the story."
Dave Balsinger, a field producer and chief researcher for the program, maintained to the Associated Press that Sun International did investigate Jammal, but "couldn't test the wood in time for our deadline."
Larue told both Time and the Associated Press that he had coached Jammal about how to act as if he had actually been to Mount Ararat.
Reached by phone Tuesday by The Times, Larue said he has not been contacted by either the production company or CBS since going public.
What he would have told them, Larue said, was that Jammal, an acquaintance of some time, contacted him after being asked to appear on the program. "He said he had made contact with creationist research people, and that he had a piece of wood. I think it was a lark with him."
Larue, who has not seen the wood in question, said Jammal told him he had "soaked it in various juices and baked it in the oven to give a real hard finish. If anyone had looked under the finish, they would have seen what it really was."
Jammal told him he was paid $500 by the production company for his appearance on the program, said Larue, who added that he himself was paid $200 to appear briefly in a previous Sun International biblical special on CBS, and that it was the questionable techniques used on this earlier program that motivated him to take part in the latest hoax/sting.
"This is a cover-up," Larue said about the network's lethargic response to the "Noah's Ark" program. "CBS must be pretty embarrassed."
Not that CBS gives that impression.
"When we bought the special, it was as an entertainment special, not a documentary," an unnamed CBS spokeswoman told Time, appearing to rationalize the program's content. That was also what CBS spokeswoman Beth Comstock told the Associated Press, adding, "We certainly were not aware of any alleged hoax."
And now that they are . . . is initial dumbness a valid excuse for not correcting the record?
Hardly. The notion that CBS would excuse the program's alleged inaccuracies because it was intended as "entertainment" and was not a documentary from its own news division is appallingly arrogant and irresponsible. If the network had integrity, a story about the controversy would have appeared on "The CBS Evening News" by this time, and CBS would have purchased ads in major newspapers setting the record straight.
By not doing any of the above, CBS cavalierly has ignored a dangerous phenomena in contemporary television: the blurring of traditional lines between news and entertainment. News, "reality" and entertainment programs increasingly join each other in broadcast schedules that are designed by networks and individual stations to be perceived as giant blocs of information. That one component may come from CBS News, as in the prime-time series "48 Hours," and another from an outside producer of pseudo-documentaries, a la "The Incredible Discovery of Noah's Ark," is a distinction lost on most viewers.
Everyone in the media makes errors, and even news organizations are sometimes agonizingly slow to come clean publicly. But until spokeswoman Tick's comment Tuesday, CBS hadn't even indicated that it was concerned by these allegations. And only now is the network seeking substantiation from the producer?
If CBS cannot be trusted to be straight with America on its "Noah's Ark" program, how can it be trusted to be forthright in labeling its programs under the coming system of "violence advisories" announced by the networks last week?
Jammal did not return calls from The Times, and earlier spoke only tersely to the Associated Press, refusing to comment on the program. "He's scared," Larue said Tuesday. "He's in a deep hole."
So is CBS--one of its own making.