CBS-Times Feud Carries Warning

Jun 23, 2003  •  Post A Comment

As increasingly large, diverse companies run the media, flare-ups like the one last week between CBS News and The New York Times could become more common. At the center of the dispute is whether CBS went beyond acceptable ethical standards for a major news organization in its attempt to land an interview with former POW Jessica Lynch.
The Times ran a story essentially accusing CBS News of dangling corporate perks such as a book deal and a TV deal in front of Ms. Lynch in exchange for the potentially lucrative interview, clearly suggesting this was an inappropriate conflict of interest. CBS was quick to defend itself, accusing The Times, which has had its own ethical problems lately, of failing to accurately portray CBS’s action by leaving out disclaimers contained within its offer to Ms. Lynch.
The whole quagmire serves mainly as a reminder of the pitfalls and responsibilities of major news organizations, which now operate in a kind of fish bowl. Amid increasing financial pressures and a super-sensitive social environment, the public’s perception of the news is at stake. Scandals such as The Times’ recent Jayson Blair incident have tainted all the media by fueling widespread distrust. And with deregulation and consolidation, as news organizations are run by ever larger and more impersonal conglomerates with conflicting agendas, the credibility gap appears to be widening.
We don’t know whether CBS went too far in its effort to attract Ms. Lynch, who might be considered the biggest “get” of the Iraq war. Likewise, we don’t know whether The Times inappropriately deleted key facts in its eagerness to get a juicy angle on the CBS story. What we do know is that television news organizations must bend over backward these days to avoid even the appearance of impropriety. What might be a smart business deal for a division whose goals are essentially commercial might be completely inappropriate for a division whose purpose is to report and distribute news in a fair and impartial manner.
With synergy a way of life in big media, the temptation always exists to intermingle the goals of news departments with entertainment divisions and other branches. But even as a part of a financially motivated corporate family, the news division must be treated as something other than a profit engine. It cannot operate simply to generate net income but also must maintain a high degree of credibility and provide a public service.
The spotlight has never shined as brightly on media news operations as it does today. If they are to survive, then they must operate with the highest ethical standards and follow them as though their continued existence depended on it.
CBS News acted quite properly in responding to The New York Times and defending its position. Ultimately, however, what matters is that ethical guidelines are followed and that news is treated differently from strictly commercial operations.