Maintaining Net Standards Not Getting Easier

Sep 27, 2004  •  Post A Comment

At CBS News, the procedures for vetting stories before they are broadcast vary from show to show. In the case of the Wednesday edition of “60 Minutes,” it is the job of Senior Broadcast Producer Esther Kartiganer to make sure that edited stories accurately reflect the material collected for the story.

In order to do her job, Ms. Kartiganer and her “60 Minutes” Sunday counterpart, Senior Producer Claudia Weinstein, compare edited segments to notes and transcripts of complete interviews conducted for the story at a screening also attended by Betsy West, senior VP for prime time at CBS News.

“They are very important safety checks at `60 Minutes,”‘ said Linda Mason, the CBS News VP for public affairs, whose duties include oversight of CBS News standards and practices, an area for which she has no assigned staffers.

Ms. Mason declined to discuss the controversy about the Wednesday, Sept. 8, “60 Minutes” report by Dan Rather about President Bush’s Vietnam-era Texas Air National Guard performance, but agreed to explain general standards and practices procedures at CBS News.

On “CBS Evening News,” which is categorized as a hard-news broadcast, investigative stories are reviewed by lawyers, Ms. Mason said. “`48 Hours’ lawyers almost every story,” she said, because that newsmagazine deals with stories that involve crime and courts.

A lawyer does not see each “60 Minutes” story that gets on the air-Ms. Mason estimated that “they lawyer 50 percent of their stories at least”-but Ms. Kartiganer and Ms. Weinstein do, as do the executive producers of the shows-Josh Howard on the Wednesday edition and Jeff Fager on the Sunday edition-and Ms. West.

Ms. Mason, who reports to CBS News President Andrew Heyward, said she generally gets involved in the vetting process only when there are lingering unresolved questions, when undercover reporting is involved, or when lawyers are consulted.

The implementation of standards and practices varies from network to network.

At NBC News, David McCormick functions as both executive producer of broadcast standards and as ombudsman, roles created in the aftermath of the 1992 revelation that GM trucks had been rigged to explode for a story on “Dateline NBC.” It was a scandal that resulted in the firing of four people, including then NBC News President Michael Gartner.

Mr. McCormick, who considers it part of his job to be available to producers and correspondents from the very beginnings of potential stories, has one associate-a journalist who also is a lawyer.

He said they look at any potentially “sensitive” “Nightly News” stories, including investigative reports and “Fleecing of America” stories. They do the same for taped pieces scheduled to be seen on “Today” and MSNBC.

Mr. McCormick said all the scripts and video for all “Dateline” stories are reviewed by his office and lawyers.

Kerry Marash, VP of editorial quality at ABC News, was not available for comment, but a spokesman said that nearly every story, particularly magazine stories and even the press releases about them, are lawyered.

Three lawyers outside ABC News are dedicated to vetting stories, as are two veteran former producers assigned to Ms. Marash, who spent 25 years as a producer and who reports directly to David Westin.

At cable news networks, the preponderance of live programming requires a different approach.

Fox News VP of Newsgathering John Stack, who was foreign news director at NBC News before joining Fox nearly five years ago, said the individual producers have the chief responsibility for their telecasts or their timeslots.

Beyond that, there is oversight by management, supplemented by legal counsel.

“For the most part you’re dependent on years of experience and people taking quite seriously the rubrics of journalism,” Mr. Stack said.

That sentiment is echoed at MSNBC by Programming VP for Daytime News Mark Effron: “You hire experienced people in the roles of executive producers and seniors.”

At MSNBC, most taped packages have been vetted at NBC News before they get on the air at the cable channel, but Managing Editor Tracey Lyons reviews most of the taped pieces that are generated by MSNBC.

CNN, which launched in 1980, did not have a standards and practices department or executive until after it had to retract its 1998 Tailwind story (charging that the U.S. special forces had gassed American deserters in Laos in 1970) and which resulted in the exit of three producers and correspondent Peter Arnett, all of whom were involved with the story.

Then CNN Chairman Tom Johnson turned to Richard Davis, then producer of Washington-based CNN shows and now executive VP of editorial standards and practices. Mr. Davis was not available for comment, but a CNN spokesman said Mr. Davis reports to CNN President Jim Walton and has “a small staff,” including Marianna Spicer, a 20-year TV news veteran and former executive producer of “Face the Nation” on CBS.

In addition to vetting specific stories, Mr. Davis also prompts occasional senior management discussions of issues that crop up and that may or may not be addressed in the manual, which is in the process of being updated.

“All policy books are the result of previous errors,” said one standards and practices veteran.

The first move toward codification of ethical and professional guidelines was made by Reuven Frank, during his first tenure as president of NBC News from 1968-72. After Mr. Frank decided to bind together all the memos that had been issued, Richard Salant topped him by decreeing that CBS News, of which he was then president, would write a standards and practices manual.

Not all of the changes in the manuals are related to specific events.

NBC’s McCormick conducts period meetings with a news division cross-section about current issues and “to keep the dialogue flowing,” and reviews the policy manual every couple of years to keep it current. It was last rewritten in 2002 to include what Mr. McCormick described as “some minor but significant changes. Some had to do with source material. One had to do with opinion, which certainly was inspired by the [ascendance of] the cable news universe.”

Ms. Mason said she oversaw a major rewriting of the CBS standards book in 1999. One of the additions then was called “Trespass: Entry into private residences” and resulted from CBS News losing a court case in which a family sued because a CBS News crew assigned to the short-lived magazine “Street Stories” accompanied law enforcement on a raid on the family’s home.

The story never aired, but the court ruled that the CBS News presence on the raid constituted trespass.

“That was a sea change,” said Ms. Mason, “because we had followed law enforcement into places for years.”

The rewrite also added a passage about the interception of satellite transmissions and that just because it is technologically possible doesn’t mean journalists should do it. “We did it protectively, ” said Ms. Mason.

Most news standards executives say that any major problematic story is likely to be reflected somehow in policy books at other news organizations.

“Every incident that comes along-and each big news organization, whether it’s a network or a newspaper, have been beset with problematic issues-I think [provokes] all journalistic organizations to take a look at it and see if there’s something that they need to refine.”

At ABC, where the policy manual is reviewed every year, the CBS memo controversy reminds some of a 1997 incident involving “The Dark Side of Camelot,” a book written by a well-known investigative reporter that was chosen to become a documentary on ABC.

Mr. Hersh has come into possession of documents that purported to show that JFK had paid off Marilyn Monroe to keep secret an affair and a child.

During the vetting process at ABC News, a network executive trained as a lawyer raised questions about whether the documents had been verified, questions that led to ABC proving that they were forged, which ultimately became the story ABC News did.

That network executive was David Westin, then president of ABC Television Network and now president
of ABC News.