By: Thomas H. Lipscomb
When Dan Rather departed on March 9, at least he beat his competitors at ABC and NBC for the first time in five years. What seems to have been overlooked by media managers and journalists in their exhaustive discussion of Rathergate and Easongate is what news organizations are supposed to do for a living— report and publish the news ?without fear or favor,? as The New York Times’ owner, Adolph Ochs, once put it.
Whatever CBS and CNN may have done wrong originally, both organizations compounded it by going into a coverup mode worthy of the Nixon White House or Bernie Ebbers? Worldcom board room. The ?suits? simply ran a classic corporate crisis-management operation to prevent the important news about what had really happened in their organizations from ever seeing the light of day.
Both The New York Times and USA Today, faced with their respective newsroom fantasists, Jayson Blair and Jack Kelley, felt obliged to send their news teams back to re-report the stories in question. They then detailed their errors in full. What should CBS and CNN have done?
At least at CBS, Dan Rather?s initial instincts were right. Last September he told Howard Kurtz: “If the documents are not what we were led to believe, I’d like to break that story. Any time I’m wrong, I want to be right out front and say, ‘Folks, this is what went wrong and how it went wrong.'” So far there isn?t a shred of evidence that Rather ever followed up. He may well have been prevented from doing so once corporate took over. As another journalist, Hemingway?s equally impotent Jake Barnes, put it: ?Isn?t it pretty to think so??
When CBS took a corporate look at the disaster, it hired a law firm. Why? Not to determine the truth or falsehood of the reporting, but to rather to evaluate the procedures by which it was carried out, as lead attorney Michael J. Missal, at the Kirkpatrick and Lockhart firm, recently clarified for me. But the Tiffany Network didn?t even trust its own news division sufficiently to let it dig out the story.
Worse still, as former New York Times general counsel and vice-chairman James C. Goodale shows in a stunning article in the current New York Review of Books, the “60 Minutes Wednesday” journalists and producers being grilled were only allowed to make initial statements to the attorneys hired by CBS. They were never given a chance to rebut evidence against them. In effect they were sentenced without a chance to respond to what to them was secret evidence CBS attorneys developed in their investigation. What CBS produced showed neither the sound practice of journalism nor legal investigation.
CBS at least took the trouble to create an elaborate illusion of a deliberative evaluation. And it concluded from the Richard Thornburgh-Louis Boccardi report that a few firings and careful adherence in the future to its own standards and practices was all that was required. Time Warner?s CNN didn?t bother.
In that case, the issue was simple enough. Did or didn’t Eason Jordan state, at the off-the-record World Economic Forum Conference in Davos, Switzerland, on January 27, something remotely like the charge that U.S. troops had targeted journalists in Iraq and killed a dozen of them or so? It didn?t matter what the opinions of Barney Frank, Christopher Dodd, or the blogger attendee who spilled the beans, Rony Abovitz, thought. It doesn?t even matter what Jordan said about what he said. And it doesn’t matter if he apologized for it or not. The World Economic Forum had videotaped the ?off the record? meeting. All CNN and Jordan had to do was to ask the tape be released.
Instead distinguished media talking heads like Tom Johnson embarrassed themselves in displays of speculative open mindedness only possible among the empty-headed. There was nothing to talk about.
Not only was there a tape, but CNN admits it never asked for it, as CNN spokeswoman Megan Mahoney has revealed to me. There was no problem with getting a copy of the notorious ?off the record? tape from the World Economic Forum. When I asked WEF?s Klaus Schwab whether he would have made a tape available, cut to just Eason Jordan?s remarks, and give it to Jordan and CNN, he replied: ?Of course. And they could make any distribution of it they wished.?
CNN had the power and the obligation to release the tape as a news organization. That responsibility was its bond to the public trust. If the head of its news department had gone off his head, firing him and getting back to basics would help to keep that trust intact. Why wouldn?t CNN, like Dan Rather, want to ?break that story??
Whatever CNN wanted to do, like Dan Rather, it didn?t do it. Like CBS it did serious damage to a brand name that had taken decades of fine work to establish. And so CNN?s latest February Nielsen ratings, post-Jordangate, dropped 21%, to about one-third of Fox?s. And this is in a day when even flagship sinecures of indispensable information like The New York Times Co. and Dow Jones are projecting hard times.
Readership and audiences of the mainstream media are dropping like a stone, but the reporting by the mainstream media on Rathergate and Easongate give little sign that anyone understands why. CJR Daily managing editor Steve Lovelady gave a pretty accurate consensus of the mainstream media’s view of what the real problem was: the bloggers did it! Rather and Jordan went down, he said, because: “The salivating morons who make up the lynch mob prevail.”
If it takes ?salivating morons? to get major news organizations to clean up their acts and remember Journalism 101, may they slobber on — before the American people stop paying any attention to big media at all. In the end, as The Washington Post?s Howard Kurtz points out, Jordan only resigned ?following a relentless campaign by online critics but scant coverage in the mainstream press.? Those of us in mainstream media had better ask why we didn?t do a better job ourselves.