Let CBS’s Error Be a Lesson to TV News

Jan 16, 2005  •  Post A Comment

Schadenfreude. Journalists, a competitive lot to be sure, revel in it when it comes to the misfortunes of one of their own. In any newsroom in the country on any given day, you can hear somebody talking about “the groaner”-or glaring error-a competitor let slip by.

Scandals have rocked the world of journalism of late-first at The New York Times, then at USA Today and now at the once peerless CBS News-and the schadenfreude among the ink-stained wretches has been palpable. But the situation CBS News faces as it tries to rebound from having bungled its report about President Bush’s National Guard service should be providing much more than schadenfreude to other TV news organizations; it should be giving them pause. Because even though it was a confluence of singular events that resulted in a disastrous “perfect storm” scenario in this instance at CBS News, something similar could happen anywhere when someone falls asleep at the switch.

Any professional news organization needs to constantly police itself, maintaining, reinforcing and remembering its standards. It is all too easy to cut a corner here or let something slip by there in the quest for the big scoop. CBS’s was a case of a once mighty but now lagging news organization struggling to keep up with an ever-expanding market of 24-hour news channels. Ratings-challenged and eager to break news, the division left insufficient time for scrutiny and authentication of the documents on which it was building what it hoped would be a big, sensational story.

Exacerbating the problem, once it became clear the documents might be fraudulent, was the rigid defense offered by CBS executives. They apparently trusted their news operation and its employees to the point where they believed a report based on unauthenticated documents was simply unthinkable. In an embarrassing and delayed about-face, they had to retract their assurances that the story was sound. In these times of politically slanted reportage and reckless Internet “scoops,” it is more important than ever for news organizations to hew to strict journalistic standards. It’s a time of too much information and too few trustworthy sources. Here’s a start: Anyone employed in TV journalism on whatever level would do well to sit down with the 220-odd-page report by the Independent Review Panel-available on CBS News’ Web site-and read the details of a story gone terribly wrong and take a refresher course in journalism basics. It’s time well spent.