CBS and the Snare of Human Vanity

The Thornburg-Boccardi Commission (or whatever you call it) finally has published its investigation into the 60 Minutes fiasco at CBS. The massive report says the network messed up bigtime in airing long-discredited complaints about President Bush, but the gumshoes also said they couldn’t find direct evidence of political bias.

CBS duly fired all the minions in the case – three executives plus the segment’s producer – but didn’t lay a glove on the two men at the top of the power pyramid, Dan Rather and CBS News President Andrew Heyward. The once-great news organization then promised to restore the greatness that once led observers to call it the Tiffany Network.

This isn’t likely. CBS suffers from three problems – one, reflecting some of the most basic elements of human nature; the other two of its own devising. On the human side, CBS chieftains display the virtue of loyalty and sin of pride. They stuck with a horrible tale out of loyalty to those who foisted it upon them, and clung to falsehood out of pride. They didn’t want to encourage perceived foes.

Then come the structural problems. CBS News lost its way long before it lost its ratings or reputation. Walter Cronkite’s fabled agonizing over the Vietnam War combined a naïve faith in the lure of socialism (“the Vietnamese people really like the Vietcong”) with faithlessness in American exceptionalism. That fashionable cynicism burrowed its way into the corporate culture, so that one would be hard-pressed to identify a single major CBS on-air talent over the past quarter-century who wasn’t a votary of the Conventional Wisdom.

This bias in turn begat messianic zeal. CBS led the way in producing a proselytizing brand of advocacy journalism – the sort of stuff people saw when Mike Wallace chased the meat inspector through a cold locker, while no CBS reporters saw fit to probe in a serious way the defects of, say, the welfare system.

The news division developed a culture that didn’t welcome dissent, insisting instead that it had a handle on the Truth and acting as if those who didn’t agree were ideologues or idiots. Dan Rather’s team didn’t question the bogus claims against the president – assertions that had been knocked down definitively during the president’s second gubernatorial campaign and first presidential campaign – because it fit perfectly their assumption that the president was a shirker and a dope, as compared with the valiant Lt. (jg) John Kerry. To this day, the network unconvincingly disavows the existence of bias among its reporters, editors, anchors or executives.

In its fire-the-minions approach to Rathergate, CBS kicked away its strengths and strengthened its weaknesses. The decision to fire four senior people (three women and the lone male atop CBS to recommend a quick retraction of the original story) shocked staffers because it sent the message that management wouldn’t accept responsibility for big problems. The old loyalty vanished forever. As a result, staffers skittered for shelter. One unnamed employee told The New York Times, “We have no juice. We’re a dying business, and this didn’t help us. Some people feel like CBS News could be out of business in five years.”

That’s probably right. CBS can’t straighten out its problems by hiring a few well-known conservatives. The network could hire Brit Hume himself and it wouldn’t help a bit. Numbers matter, and the addition of a conservative here or there will do nothing to create the kind of intellectual brio necessary to take a fair look at the teeming world around us, or question the fads and assumptions of the age. The listless, leftish culture persists at CBS, and will for years and years.

Every great empire falls; now it’s the Tiffany Network’s turn.

There’s a moral here for every one of us in the news business: There is no more important virtue in journalism than humility. Every one of us in this business ought to understand that we have landed here not because we are wise, but because we are curious. We don’t know much – and that much, we ought to know.

A reporter ought to remain skeptical, without embracing cynicism; question incessantly without doubting the existence of truth. And we should never be too proud, when presented with compelling facts, to say: “You’re right. I was wrong.”

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