Media credibility and accountabilityIt's been said that the reputation of a thousand years can be lost by the conduct of a single day. That's equally true for media outlets who try to be objective.
When my mother was in college in the late 60s, TIME magazine did an article on her university. Apparently, a graphic misidentified one or more of the buildings on campus. It had little bearing to the content of the article but my mother was still appalled. She quite logically reasoned, "If they mess up the things I know, how can I trust them to report the things I don't know?" To this day, she refuses to buy or subscribe to TIME, even 35 years later.
This anecdote demonstrates how precarious media credibility is.
The media has had a rough time of it in the last few years. Jayson Blair. Jack Kelley. The failure to be skeptical about the administration's pre-Iraq war claims.
The most recent media hand-ringing has come because of a controversial CBS News on President Bush's service in the Air National Guard.
As CBS itself noted: an independent panel that concluded that CBS News failed to follow basic journalistic principles in the preparation and reporting of the piece. The panel also said CBS News had compounded that failure with a “rigid and blind” defense of the 60 Minutes Wednesday report.
Which is interesting since it's exactly the same approach that got the BBC in trouble last year. Always under fire, sometimes fairly and sometimes not, media outlets tend to be hypersensitive. All questioning is dismissed as partisan. This bunker mentality ends up killing them when the criticism has justification.
As is often the case, competitive pressures blinded CBS to basic journalistic standards.
The panel said a "myopic zeal" to be the first news organization to broadcast a groundbreaking story about Mr. Bush’s National Guard service was a key factor in explaining why CBS News had produced a story that was neither fair nor accurate and did not meet the organization’s internal standards.
Additionally, While the panel found that some actions taken by CBS News encouraged such suspicions, “the Panel cannot conclude that a political agenda at 60 Minutes Wednesday drove either the timing of the airing of the segment or its content.”
The panel, which included former Republican Attorney General Dick Thornburgh, also offered four recommendations to prevent a reoccurence. Including [fostering] an atmosphere in which competitive pressure is not allowed to prompt airing of reports before all investigation and vetting is done.
It also brings up an interesting point that my father was raising as far back as 15 years ago. Networks used to not expect that news divisions would make money. They were called 'loss leaders.' They would lose money themselves but they would bring prestige, and thus viewers, to the network which would translate into higher revenues on entertainment shows.
Now, news divisions are expected to make money too. Not surprisingly, the line between news and entertainment is becoming increasingly blurred. That's why the suggestion to reduce competitive pressures, however nice in theory, won't work in practice. Unless CBS is truly willing to commit to quality journalism, even if it means diminished profits for the news division.
Four CBS staffers, including two high ranking ones, were fired. At least some organizations hold themselves accountable when they screw up.
Even liberal Salon.com called CBS' mistakes "shocking" and "rudimentary."
It baffles me that such a piece, which was sure to be very controversial, would be done in such haste.
I remember a few years ago, CNN started a new investigative documentary series whose title I forget. The first story was on something called Operation Tailwind. For months, CNN promo'd the heck out of the series and this first story. They ran ads for it approximately every 54.2 seconds. I've rarely seen a documentary series promoted so heavily. They ran the first story. It causes controversy. Less than a week later, CNN had to retract the story.
That was serious blow to CNN's credibility. Though CNN is still the only cable news network worth watching even occassionally, I still don't trust it the same way since. Not only did it screw up, but it screwed up on something it had promoted ad nauseum. It had screwed up on something it had based the entire series on. If there's any story where you should be extra sure of its credibility, it's the one you promote that heavily. They put all their eggs in one basket and the basket fell apart.
As I said, media credibility is fleeting. This NPR column points out that 2004 should have been a great year for CBS. It broke the shameful Abu Ghraib scandal in March. It also revealed that a Pentagon analyst passed classified information to Israel. Those accomplishments were quickly overshadowed by the National Guard flap.
Furthermore, the mess harms CBS even on stories that are journalistically solid. As the NPR column notes, another CBS story explored how Bush administration officials were duped by forged documents -- no joke -- when they claimed that Saddam Hussein tried to purchase materials from Niger to make weapons of mass destruction. That link was used to help justify the invasion of Iraq.
The story was displaced by the National Guard story and hasn't aired since. Even though there have been no journalistic problems reported with the Niger story. Why? Because the Guard story ruined CBS' credibility, on all stories. The Guard story made people believe (or confirm their suspicion) that CBS was liberal or anti-Bush. Therefore, they are hesitant to run another story critical of the administration, even if it's journalistically solid.
The mainstream media needs to be more careful. It's far too important to make itself irrelevant by such bungling. Without the media, we'd never have learned about the Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay scandals that were being done in name of America. Without the media here in New York state, we'd know nothing about the corruption and secrecy of our state government.
Furthermore, this incident shows the increasing influence of the blogosphere. It was bloggers who first pointed out questionable aspects of the CBS story. While you can't necessarily take a blogger's word as law anymore than a newspaper's, this doesn't mean bloggers have no value. Bloggers serve an increasingly useful role in this era of media consolidation. They offer points of view that often ignored by the corporate media. And, like in the CBS case, they frequently call mainstream media outlets on mistakes, inaccuracies and other sloppiness that might otherwise get glossed over. Bloggers are now an important part of the Fourth Estate and the media magnates would do well not to brush off their influence with a wave of the hand.
The CBS flap reinforces something I've said all along. If you want to be a truly informed citizen, you can not rely on a single news source. Sorry, there are no short cuts!