CBS must regain courage in wake of Rather report



First the network has to admit that Dan Rather screwed up big-time in failing to properly document and authenticate a story charging that President Bush received preferential treatment in the National Guard.

Then it turns out that to rush that story onto the air, CBS preempted a much more timely and relevant story alleging that “the U.S. government was snookered by forged documents purporting to show Iraqi efforts to purchase uranium from Niger,” as Newsweek first reported in its online edition.

Now CBS says it won’t run that Iraq story until after Nov. 2 because, “We now believe it would be inappropriate to air the report so close to the presidential election.”


Close? The election was more than a month away when CBS announced that decision. Responsible news organizations don’t usually broadcast or publish controversial new charges against candidates in the final few days before an election, for fear the candidates won’t have adequate time to defend themselves. But a month? That would give the president -- or any candidate for national office -- ample time to mount a defense.

What CBS really means (but can’t say) is that it would be inappropriate (i.e., stupid) to broadcast a report saying the Bush administration had been deceived by forged documents so soon after the network had to apologize because its star anchor had been deceived by what now appear to be forged documents.

And CBS clearly thinks (but also can’t say) that it would be equally stupid to broadcast another controversial story critical of Bush so soon after Rather’s National Guard blunder -- and the disclosure that his producer had put a source in touch with a senior advisor to Sen. John Kerry -- gave fresh ammunition to critics who have long insisted that CBS and Rather have a demonstrable liberal bias.

So a potentially important story with a bearing on the current war in Iraq gets shelved because CBS, like so many other news organizations covering this campaign, decided that what happened (or not) in a war 30 years ago was suddenly Very Important, more important than the war today. And then, of course, they didn’t report that Very Important Story responsibly and undermined their own credibility and that of the rest of the media as well.

The uranium question

Not surprisingly, organizations opposed to Bush immediately leaped to pummel CBS for withholding the Iraqi uranium story from its “60 Minutes” broadcast on Sept. 8.

Both, a liberal, online advocacy group, and Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), a liberal, New York-based media watchdog group, demanded the Bush/Iraq story be broadcast before Nov. 2. Both also suggested that CBS had decided not to do so because Sumner Redstone, chairman of its parent company Viacom, supports Bush.


This theory fits with liberals’ insistence that it doesn’t matter if most reporters, editors and other news executives are liberal because most media owners, like most owners of other big companies, are conservative, and in any serious showdown, it’s the man who signs the paychecks who prevails.

FAIR quotes Redstone as saying, “From a Viacom standpoint, the election of a Republican administration is a better deal,” and the organization goes on to say it’s “journalistically indefensible for CBS to withhold a story due to embarrassment incurred by another, unrelated piece. It is particularly unacceptable when the shelving of a story benefits a candidate that CBS’ boss has just publicly endorsed. If CBS wants to restore trust in its news judgment, it can begin by applying journalistic standards, not political calculations, to the decision on when to air its report on the origin of the forged Niger documents.”

If FAIR and its sympathizers on the left are correct about CBS’ motivation, the decision to withhold the story is reprehensible, a worse abdication of the network’s journalistic responsibility than even Rather’s careless rush to judgment. But Andrew Heyward, president of CBS News, “categorically” denies that Redstone had anything to do with that decision.

So if the decision was simply a limit-the-damage public relations maneuver rather than a nefarious political calculation, it is at least understandable. But no less regrettable.

I have no idea how sound the Bush/Iraq story is. I don’t know if it breaks new ground or simply rehashes what we know. But CBS originally thought it warranted a prime-time broadcast. Of course, CBS also thought the Bush/National Guard story warranted a prime-time broadcast, so one cannot automatically assume the network properly exercised its editorial oversight on this story either. But even if the story is a model of journalistic probity, there’s no question that broadcasting it before the election would open CBS to ferocious criticism. In the context of current events, they’d risk looking as if they really had it in for Bush.

That’s the penalty they have to pay for violating so many basic tenets of journalism. They played “gotcha” journalism. They rushed on the air without being sure of their story, just so they could beat rivals who were working on the same story. They based their story on documents they hadn’t properly authenticated. They didn’t interview -- or even know the identity of -- the original source for the documents. They relied on a man who, at the least, was not a paradigm of stability and impartiality. And, of course, they did all this so they could air a story that -- in my view -- has absolutely nothing to do with Bush’s qualifications to continue in the White House.


As a result of all this, they now find themselves hamstrung -- and not just on the Bush/Iraq story. CBS reporters and editors can’t help being a bit gun-shy on any story that could be perceived as being critical of Bush -- or any story that could be perceived as being favorable to Kerry, for that matter.

Ammunition supplied

Heyward denies this, of course.

“We intend to keep reporting on all aspects of the election campaign, without fear or favor,” he told me when we spoke recently.

But it’s one thing to ignore your critics and focus only on good, courageous journalism when you know in your heart that accusations of liberal bias are unjustified and that the only ammunition your critics have is their own bias and paranoia. It’s quite another matter when you’ve just handed your critics the best ammunition they could ask for this side of Rather wearing a Kerry-Edwards pin in his lapel. It doesn’t even matter if CBS believes -- as I continue to believe -- that Rather’s mistake on the Bush/National Guard story grew not out of partisan bias but out of his misplaced zeal to broadcast a big, juicy story before his competitors.

The result is inevitably the same. More skepticism of CBS and more timidity at CBS.

The public is already -- increasingly -- skeptical of the media. A nationwide Gallup Poll last week found that only 44% of Americans have confidence in the media’s ability to report news stories accurately and fairly -- the lowest level of confidence in the media since Gallup first asked the question in 1972.

Meanwhile, timidity at news organizations has been rising as fast as credibility has been falling. Worried about everything from accusations of liberal bias to demands for higher profit margins, most news organizations have become softer, played it safer, gone for sensationalism and superficiality over serious reportage of substantive issues -- reportage that costs money and creates controversy.

There was a time when CBS -- the house of Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite -- was a leader in giving the public real journalism. Changes in ownership and the closing of foreign bureaus long ago began to erode that role. It’s a shame to see the network sinking still further into the muck of mediocrity.


David Shaw can be reached at Read his previous columns at