The Sorrows of CBS

The network still seems to think it's involved in a political game

CBS has now apologized for its use of disputed documents in a story it broadcast about George W. Bush's career in the National Guard, calling it "a mistake in judgment." That's certainly worth a headline. Because only CBS can resolve the mystery of CBS' incomprehensible behavior over the past two weeks, the apology at least makes it possible for this story to proceed toward a more useful resolution.

On the other hand, the CBS position that it was "misled" about the source of the documents rather misses the point of its own position. Given the intrinsic problems of the documents at issue, the advice of the forensics experts it consulted and ignored, and the length of time that this matter has been festering, CBS' attempt to portray itself as a duped victim is untenable.

It's interesting that CBS's situation has ended up taking this particular shape, which is far more political than it is journalistic. CBS is playing a role usually reserved for embarrassed Washington figures. The familiar rule of thumb in Washington is for embattled characters who have been caught in some impropriety to issue an acknowledgement of wrongdoing and, as the cliché goes, get the matter behind them. In American culture, confession is half the journey to redemption. (In practice, the other half of that journey is that people forget what you did.) Subsequent investigations eventually identify some lower-level figures who are forced from office to expiate the wrongdoing. Washington then "moves on." CBS seems to be casting itself in this role of embarrassed power, with document source Bill Burkett the first to play on-camera expiator. Other expiators are doubtless to follow.

If that's how CBS sees its psychodrama playing out, however, it's yet another miscalculation on the network's part. Its role is not that of a wielder of power, but as a corrector of power. It cannot put an end to its problems with a confession that shunts blame, at least not without undermining its own institutional role. CBS's problem is not merely that it was somehow "misled" into using crude forgeries in a report involving a president in the midst of an election campaign; its problem is that it dismissed criticism and denigrated its critics without offering credible substantiation of its original story. Indeed, it adopted a pose—now revealed to be utter pretense—that its documents had been vetted adequately and that its critics were unworthy pajama-wearing "political operatives." This was a political reaction, predicated on the network's apparent notion that it was involved in a political dispute. In short, the network has behaved imperiously throughout, and has now sought an imperious, Washington-style exit.

This is in obvious contrast to the reaction by such organizations as The Washington Post and USA Today when they faced challenges to their own credibility. These news organizations did not attempt to portray themselves as victims; instead, they accepted that they had failed in their institutional role, put up with the glee of their critics, and moved to make their internal problems transparent. That was the only way to regain their credibility, and it is the only way available to CBS as well. It doesn't matter that anyone attempted to mislead CBS about these documents; people attempt to mislead news organizations every day. What matters is that CBS blew the story and its aftermath.

Is the continuing CBS scandal a watershed media event? That depends on how important you think CBS News is to begin with. Broadcast network news was once an essential force in shaping the nation's informational Zeitgeist, but that hasn't been true for years; one can now be perfectly well informed on every major issue before the country and never watch any of the network broadcasts. Broadcast news, like the once-powerful newsweekly magazines, has been reduced to a state of latent power.

That is, because the evening news and the various network feature programs (such as the 60 Minutes shows) enter nearly every American home, they remain capable of creating major stories, as was demonstrated in the course of the Abu Ghraib scandal. (The producer of CBS' Abu Ghaib story, Mary Mapes, was also the producer of the National Guard story.) But networks are no longer capable of exerting daily influence over news narratives in the way they did before the rise of cable TV and the Internet, and the consequent fracturing of the audience. To the degree that broadcast news has lost so much of its power, the stakes in the CBS story have been diminished. (Of course, that's based on what we know now. If it turns out, for example, that CBS acted in collusion with the Kerry campaign—and there is no evidence that it did—then the stakes in this story would rise dramatically.)

However, journalism has entered into an unsteady state. The blogging community that set itself against CBS' claims can boast of another illustration of its power to keep a story going until it reaches a consequential stage. (We've seen that before, notably in the effort that forced Sen. Trent Lott from his position as Senate Majority Leader.)

Their achievement can hardly be denied, and shouldn't be minimized; a group of them challenged the CBS story, and went headlong into Deep Typewriter mode to gather the arcane expertise that contributed to CBS' undoing. Many bloggers showed genuine enterprise in their efforts, notably Charles Johnson's use of a default MS WORD document laid over and matching exactly a CBS document that was supposedly created in the 1970s.

Even so, their target in this case exhibited perfectly phenomenal stupidity, playing repeatedly into their hands by adopting a rejectionist position it was unable to sustain. Furthermore, as Jesse Walker argued recently on this site, bloggers' efforts were greatly enhanced by major institutions of the establishment media, especially The Washington Post and ABC News.

Bloggers represent a powerful, self-organized community capable of gathering widely dispersed knowledge, and applying that knowledge to effect. Its members offer challenges to the mainstream media, alternatives to its narratives, re-readings of its stories, new information, and much else. But while blogging has become a wild force in the practice of journalism, one that can claim some remarkable results, it is obviously not a substitute for the major institutions of establishment journalism.

The continued wellbeing of establishment journalism requires trust. That trust is exactly what CBS' bizarre behavior has been undermining. The rest of this story, in which the network takes responsibility for its own actions, could be its most interesting chapter.

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