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CBS Scandal Highlights Tension Between Bloggers and News Media

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While CBS News scrambled for answers and bloggers bragged about their power, news pros at the 2004 SPJ convention warned of the challenges facing all journalists in today's digital age.

Editor?s note: The author is a former national board member of SPJ, a member of the national Ethics committee and moderator of a panel about blogging at the 2004 convention. She has been to all but one of the last 15 conventions.

Somehow, it was appropriate that the same week the controversial 60 Minutes II piece about President George W. Bush's National Guard service aired, hundreds of journalists, academics and students gathered in Manhattan for the annual convention of the Society of Professional Journalists.

Buzz about the story reported by Dan Rather started early, whirring through the Grand Hyatt, serving as an unplanned backdrop for a program that included appearances by a host of high-profile journalists and media executives -- among them, Walter Cronkite, Brian Williams and Bill Moyers.

Through it all, the Internet played a starring role -- sometimes as the villain, sometimes wearing the white hat and sometimes, most realistically, as a bit of both. Outside the hotel, online discussions were fueling a journalism brush fire over allegations of forged documents while the journalists in the hotel filled rooms for discussions about credibility, ethics, the First Amendment, and, above all, about doing the job better.

For a decade, journalists have been grappling with the changes spurred by the adoption of the Internet as a primary communications force: news cycles on fast-forward, 24/7 deadline pressure, a "shrinking" world, multiple layers of competition. Overriding all of these, though, is the need to deal with the disappearing boundaries between journalists and non-journalists.

Once again, a high-profile case is drawing attention to issues of journalism ethics, credibility and methods while shining a spotlight on the role of non-journalists. And, once again, it's being used as the basis for sweeping generalizations -- particularly when it comes to blogging and the news media.

Bloggers are guys in pajamas, as one former CBS exec put it. Media are "scum." The mainstream media, aka lying liberals, behave monolithically and usually poorly. Only bloggers can save the world. Anyone can be a journalist. Each phrase being flung back with escalating language as though the participants are running against each other instead of all trying to do the same thing: use their varying skills as communicators to share news and information. In blogging, that usually comes with a dash of opinion and a smidgeon of attitude while journalism operates on a spectrum that starts with "just the facts."

Both rely on credibility -- and both can lose it in an instant.

But the kinds of credibility they have can vary. Some people believe blogs and media outlets that dovetail with their political beliefs are more credible while those who represent the other side, whatever that is, are less so. Others equate credibility with neutrality or at least a perception of balance.

Take the report CBS News aired on 60 Minutes II Sept. 8.

Those who don't like Rather, CBS or the traditional media, and/or support President Bush for a second term, leapt at the notion that the story was faked -- with many taking the further leap to the belief that the network was trying to manipulate the election. Staunch Republican Dick Thornburgh, the former U.S. Attorney General chosen by CBS along with retired AP President Louis Boccardi to investigate the 60 Minutes II report, could declare the opposite and most in that cluster will still believe Rather deliberately misrepresented documents to hurt the president.

Those who support ABB -- anyone but Bush -- defended the report, pushing for a focus on the events that could be authenticated, not documents that can't. They tend to be dismissive or suspicious of right-wing blogs and media outlets; Fox News is their CBS.

For those of any stripe who respect Rather as a journalist, it was a mistake, not a plot. If CBS News had stuck to basic reporting, let alone the official CBS News Standards, we wouldn?t be writing about this now. A USA Today/CNN/Gallup Poll released Sept. 27 found that 56 percent of the 1,006 adults polled thought CBS made an "honest mistake" and that 55 percent still trust CBS to report the news accurately -- not a great vote of confidence by any means but much better than one might expect given the loud anti-CBS clatter.

'Know where stuff comes from'

While bloggers and others online pushed back at the CBS story with a lot of clever work, much of the "information" flying around the Net about the documents was inaccurate -- including claims that the font didn't exist in 1972 (Times Roman was first used in 1931; the IBM version was known as Press Roman in the 70s), that proportional spacing wasn't available on typewriters (IBM introduced it in 1941) and that the superscript "th" wasn't possible then (superscript capability could be purchased as an option). That's not to say the Texas Air National Guard had access to a typewriter with all of these abilities, just that the claims made individually were off target. At the same time, some mainstream media outlets echoed CBS?s mistakes by relying on anonymous sources and making assumptions as they covered the story.

Then there was The New York Times, which put Dan Rather's apology on the front page but played its own admission about faulty pre-war reporting inside.

One gauge of credibility is the willingness to correct mistakes.

Because bloggers usually control their own forum and don?t have to wait for the news cycle to swing around again, they have a considerable advantage over journalists when it comes to correcting mistakes. If they choose not correct an error, other bloggers will do it for them.

Posters on FreeRepublic.com, the same conservative discussion board where the accusation of forged documents began, also challenged the truth of an anti-Kerry report posted to conservative ChronWatch.com. They were right, the post was wrong and ChronWatch ran a correction.

Of course, there's a considerable difference between the chief anchor of a broadcast network putting his name on a problematic report produced by his own staff and an Internet site passing along a spurious report. But the correction and a corresponding pledge to behave more responsibly elevated the level of play for ChronWatch, which started as a media watchdog and now was admitting to "a journalistic embarrassment of our own."

As ChronWatch explained to its readers, "The lesson to be learned is that it isn?t just the liberal media, but all of us who are vulnerable to letting our political prejudices get in the way of our best judgment at times. The true test is whether or not we learn from our mistakes.  And that's exactly what we at ChronWatch pledge to our readers to do."

In journalism, credibility often starts with a news organization while individuals earn credibility over time; on occasion, the credibility of the journalists bolsters the standing of the news organization. A journalist's flaws may be camouflaged by the credibility or prestige of the organization.

Bloggers earn credibility on their own but also through fellow bloggers, who put a seal of approval on someone by sending visitors their way. They can yank that approval by dropping someone from a blogroll or letting their own readers know they no longer trust that person.

Blogger and Microsoft evangelist Robert Scoble responded with alacrity when he found out from readers that a link he posted from another site led to an image that was a hoax. "You only get one shot to ruin your credibility. I ruined some of mine by putting that on my blog," he posted. "It's a cautionary tale. Know where stuff comes from."

CBS News squandered some of its hard-earned credibility in several ways:

  • by rushing the story to air without thoroughly vetting it
  • by failing to include dissenting opinions by experts consulted for the report
  • by waiting too long to acknowledge there was a problem
  • by including a lawyer without a media background as one of the investigators while omitting anyone with experience in television news
  • and, most damaging, by spiking until after the election a different story that would be perceived as critical of the administration.

Mix in veteran producer Mary Mapes' matchmaking between source Bill Burkett and Kerry campaign executive Joe Lockhart; however innocuous the phone call between the two men may have been, the call from Mapes to Lockhart muddied already murky waters.

The Los Angeles Times was excoriated by critics when it produced a report about accusations of sexual harassment against then-candidate Arnold Schwarzenegger just before the election. CBS apparently was willing to take the flack over the National Guard story when it aired eight weeks before the presidential election -- and for another story about the Bush administration and Iraq before it was pulled to make room for the National Guard report. By screwing up the former, the network marginalized its ability to do the latter and failed its viewers again.

'They are scandal mongers'

During SPJ's convention, the venerable Walter Cronkite, already on the record as not being a big fan of the Internet, could not keep the venom out of his voice when he told listeners in a crowded ballroom: "I cannot understand how the Internet should have gotten so entirely oblivious to the whole theory of libel and slander. How is it possible for these people to get on the air with any allegation they want to make, any statement they want to make as if it were true, as if they were journalists which they are clearly not? They are scandal mongers."

Brian Williams, his co-anchor for the session, drew on his own concerns for a series of open-ended questions. "Now, if you have a modem and an opinion, in many cases, you're a journalist. The Internet -- is it good or bad for the discourse? Is it making us fiefdoms of one in our own homes with our computers? Is it counter to the kind of town square approach to journalism that a lot of us believe the founders both of the nation and journalism had in mind?"

The former CBS News correspondent slated to succeed Tom Brokaw as NBC's top anchor, described his own way of dealing with standards and credibility. "The part of this new trend that breaks my heart is that people coming up right now don't realize that we all trained under standards -- the great blue book of standards authored largely by [former CBS News president] Dick Salant, which continues, I think, to be the best North Star in our industry for what I do ..."

[Unlike some news organizations that post their codes of ethics or other guidelines, CBS News considers the CBS News Standards to be an internal document, according to spokeswoman Sandy Genelius. Based on long-standing CBS News rules, it was first published in 1976 and last updated in 1999. All CBS News employees "must agree to abide by the standards," Genelius said via e-mail.]

Willams added, "What saddens me about this new trend is people perhaps may not know there are rules that govern our behavior. I choose to go using the way [Washington Post editor] Len Downie has always run a newsroom; I choose to go a step further. I don?t believe in things like speaking for money or ever, ever, ever letting political opinions seep in to what I do on air or off."

But it was Bill Moyers who tackled the reality of an Internet populated by people who may not be journalists by training and are making up their own rules as they go along. He said he was glad to see bloggers credentialed for the conventions, then urged his audience to read Dan Gillmor's new book on citizen media. "He argues persuasively that Big Media is losing its monopoly on the news, thanks to the Internet," Moyers told them, adding, "He?s on to something. In one sense we are discovering all over again the feisty spirit of our earliest days as a nation when the republic and a free press were growing up together."

In an eloquent, emotional speech peppered with quotes and history, Moyers described a time when the young country had more than a 1,000 newspapers. "They were passionate and pugnacious and often deeply prejudiced; some spoke for Indian-haters, immigrant-bashers, bigots, jingoes, and land-grabbers. But some called to the better angels of our nature. ..."

Still, he warned his audience that even with the advent of a modern wave of citizen media, "You and I will in no way be relieved from wrestling with what it means ethically to be a professional journalist. I believe Tom Rosenstiel got it right in that Boston Globe article when he said that the proper question is not whether you call yourself a journalist but whether your own work constitutes journalism. And what is that? I like his answer: 'A journalist tries to get the facts right,' tries to get 'as close as possible to the verifiable truth' -- not to help one side win or lose but 'to inspire public discussion.' Neutrality, he concludes, is not a core principle of journalism, 'but the commitment to facts, to public consideration, and to independence from faction, is.'"

Tech journalist and blogger Doc Searls straddles both worlds. Here's how he dealt with credibility in a recent post responding to blogger and lawyer Ernest Miller's contention that the Rather story matters "because the blatant flouting of basic and fundamental journalistic practices by one of the largest and prominent news organizations in the country is undermining the credibility of journalism as a whole."

Searls' response: "That credibility has never been better than every good journalist's commitment to do the best they can, under the circumstances (which usually involve constrained time and resources). ... What's changed is the involuntary outsourcing of fact-gathering and -checking to a growing assortment of amateurs and professionals who are largely external to the profession. What we need isn't competition between blogs and mainstream news outlets, but a working symbiosis between the two."

He isn't alone in that belief.

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Related Links
Bill Moyers' SPJ speech
Bio: Richard Salant
CBS: Story a 'mistake'
Charles Kuralt on 'CBS News Standards' manual
ChronWatch correction
Dan Rather's apology
Doc Searls: Rather, not
Ernest Miller on CBS' response to criticism
Fox News: How the Blogosphere Took on CBS' Docs
New York Times on its pre-war Iraq coverage
Robert Scoble on credibility
USA Today: Poll on CBS story
Walter Cronkite and Brian Williams on C-SPAN (video)
Related stories on OJR
Connecting With Dan Gillmor: What's Next For the Web
Transparency Begets Trust in the Ever-Expanding Blogosphere
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