Lesley Stahl Should Have Told Us

"FOX News Watch" host Eric Burns
Eric Burns is the host of FOX News Watch which airs Saturdays at 6:30 p.m. / 11:30 p.m. ET and Sunday at 2:30 a.m./ 6:30 a.m. ET.

Full disclosure is not what it’s cracked up to be. A pickpocket who tells you that he is a pickpocket is still a threat to pick your pocket.

Then again, if a pickpocket does confess his pickpocketing, the odds are that you will protect yourself against his digital dexterity by shifting your money and credit cards to a more secure position. It is for this reason that pickpockets so seldom announce their occupation to potential victims.

The same is true with journalists.

Last Sunday, CBS’s Lesley Stahl interviewed Richard Clarke, the so-called former “terrorism czar” of the Bush administration, who has just written a new book savagely critical of his one-time boss, called "Against All Enemies: Inside the White House’s War on Terror — What Really Happened." What Stahl did not do was tell her audience that the parent company of CBS is also the parent company of Clarke’s publisher.

“It is one thing for ABC to use "Good Morning America" as a promotional vehicle for Disney movies; it is quite another for CBS to use "60 Minutes" to sell ideology as well as first-edition hardcovers."

Yes, the CBS website told readers. Yes, CBS Radio told listeners. No, "60 Minutes" did not tell viewers.

Why? One assumes that Stahl and her producers were afraid people would think the interview lacked objectivity — that book sales, rather than insight into the Bush administration’s handling of terrorism, would seem the interview’s primary goal.a Stahl and her producers were wrong.

It is true that some people might have discounted the interview had they known of the corporate connection, but most others, myself included, would have commended Stahl for her honesty, and assumed that she would conduct herself with similar candor throughout her interrogation of Clarke.

But she deceived us. She deceived us by omission.a By failing to reveal that Clarke’s book was published by Free Press, which is a division of Simon & Schuster, which is owned by Viacom, which owns CBS, Stahl cast a shadow over the entire enterprise.

Consider this: At one point in the interview, Stahl seems almost aghast at the charges that Clarke makes against the president’s response to 9/11. She says:a “Well, this is not a loyal book. I’m sorry.” And then a few moments later: “Don’t you think he [President Bush] handled himself and hit all the right notes after 9/11, showed strength, got us through it? You don’t give him credit for that?” And, a few moments after that, seeming to be immensely, uncomprehendingly frustrated: “You don’t give him credit for anything. Nothing.”

Had these questions been asked of Clarke by a correspondent who had begun the questioning by disclosing the corporate connection, they would have seemed hard-hitting, nuggets of integrity and objectivity. Instead, they seemed like carefully orchestrated bits of performance.

To make matters worse, "60 Minutes" devoted two segments to the interview, something it rarely does for any topic, thus calling attention all the more to the importance of Clarke’s book to the network.

To make matters worse than that, this is the second time in recent months that "60 Minutes" has interviewed an author without revealing that his publisher and CBS were cousins. Earlier this year, former U.S.Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill talked to the program about his own anti-Bush volume, "The Price of Loyalty," a Simon & Schuster book.

And, of course, to make matters much worse, both books were political, which means that CBS seems not only to be converting journalism to the service of mammon, but to the service of a political viewpoint. It is one thing for ABC to use "Good Morning America" as a promotional vehicle for Disney movies; it is quite another for CBS to use "60 Minutes" to sell ideology as well as first-edition hardcovers.

Lesley Stahl should have told us. She should have disclosed. As a result, the next time we see her doing a politically sensitive interview, we will wonder as much about what she has not told us as we do about the words she actually speaks. She has, in other words, not just done a disservice to viewers; she has done a disservice to her own reputation.

Eric Burns is the host of Fox News Channel's acclaimed Fox News Watch, a weekly half-hour program that "covers the coverage," reporting not on the major stories of the day but on the way theamedia are covering those stories.