A Short Pre-History Of Public Eye

Since the great and noble project that is Public Eye aims to make the operations and deliberations of CBS News more visible and transparent to our readers and viewers, it seems only fair to offer an inside account of how we got here. As editorial director of CBSNews.com, I was part of the team that created Public Eye and the blog now falls into my portfolio as a news editor. So it appears to be my job to tell the story. Lucky me.

Before the history, allow me to put the bottom line on top: No one at CBS expects to make a bundle on Public Eye. No one thinks it will boost ratings or become the next "CSI" or Google. No one thinks it's a great publicity stunt. We think, we hope, it is the right thing to do for CBS News, for journalism and for our readers and viewers.

Here's the full scoop.

In January of this year, Betsy Morgan, then vice president for Business Development at CBS News, came to me and Mike Sims, director of News and Operations at CBSNews.com, and asked us to think about developing an innovative blog connected to the CBS Evening News, a blog that would heavily utilize video. Two months earlier, Dan Rather had announced he would step down as the anchor of the Evening News in March 2005. Many people at CBS News were thinking about what the new news would look like and our group was pondering a more ambitious online component. Also, change is constant in the world of online news and we were looking at blogging as a creative new avenue for CBSNews.com.

On Jan. 20, I circulated a memo to Morgan, Sims and Andrew Heyward, president of CBS News, that suggested we launch a blog by one author who would be a "de facto ombudsman." I wrote that "the blog would give a real-time, insider's chronicle of the news day, while also dealing with past coverage and running stories." I suggested publishing e-mails from viewers, allowing readers to post comments, soliciting pieces from outsiders — hostile and friendly — and finding ways to lift the curtain on how the news is produced at CBS.

Around that time, Larry Kramer joined the conversation. A veteran print reporter, Kramer was the founder of CBSMarketWatch.com, a leading financial news site that CBS had a big financial interest in. Dow Jones had just bought MarketWatch and Kramer was now helping us as a consultant. In a Feb. 8 memo, Kramer suggested that CBS News name a "public advocate who will run a live blog and provide the first point of contact with anyone wishing to react to anything he or she sees on the show or the Web site." He added, "And the public advocate will be charged with getting answers, sometimes on film, from our staff on why we did something the way we did."

Kramer, Heyward, Sims, Morgan and I met in New York on Feb. 18 and hashed out what we came to call, unfortunately, Project Blog. The group became increasingly excited about the potential for this project to engage and inform the broadcast news audience in totally new ways, and for CBS News to become more open, more publicly accountable and more articulate about what we do. We felt that all the CBS audiences — online, radio and broadcast — wanted this. In a memo summarizing that meeting, I wrote "we agree we want the blog to be a high profile vehicle for public feedback and conversation."

A few days later, Kramer wrote, "We will launch an unprecedented effort to bring the viewing public into the news-making process through the tremendous interactive powers of the Internet. We will be communicating continually with our audience to explain what we are doing and why and to hear what they think of our efforts and their suggestions for improvement."

By this point, we all felt with increasing conviction that Project Blog should enable CBS News to do what many newspapers have traditionally done through ombudsmen or readers' advocates, corrections pages, letters to the editor and missives from the editors. Because of the scarcity and expense of air time, the networks never had practical ways to do these things, to their (and our) detriment. The Internet, we realized, changed all that and we wanted CBS News to be the first television news organization in history to take what is a gargantuan step in this business.

But there were things we didn't want. We didn't want the blog to be for insiders and professional journalists. We didn't want it to be pompous. We didn't want it to be a dry and lofty discussion of journalistic ideals. We wanted it to be fun. We wanted it to explain how the news is produced and not just judge the producers and the product. We wanted it to be published daily, not just on Sundays. We wanted to do something that hadn't been done before.

Heyward said we needed a "nonbudsman" to do the job of running this "unblog." Eventually we came up with a name — Public Eye (praise be to Hardy Spire of the Washington bureau). But we never came up with a good title for the guy who would run it. So when we hired Vaughn Ververs, he was named editor, Public Eye.

That is the gist of Public Eye as it debuts. Most of the ideas and features we hope to include in Public Eye as it ripens were on the table back then and have been refined since, with plenty of what is called in corporate America "robust debate." We decided the blog should try to cover all of CBS News and CBSNews.com, not just the Evening News.

Kramer soon joined CBS officially and in a big way, as president, CBS Digital Media. He was put in charge of CBS' online properties including CBSNews.com. Betsy Morgan is now senior vice president and general manager for CBSNews.com in the CBS Digital Media division. New budgets were approved by the uber-bosses to staff Public Eye. The Public Eye team is officially employed by CBS Digital Media, not CBS News, giving them independence that is unprecedented for journalism's watchdogs.

On July 12, Larry Kramer and Andrew Heyward publicly announced Public Eye along with a number of other innovations and enhancements on CBSNews.com. Ververs hired two fabulous young journalists to join the daring mission into enemy territory, Brian Montopoli from Columbia Journalism Review and Hillary Profita from ABC News' "Nightline."

That's the transparent story.

In interviews about Public Eye, Heyward, Kramer and Ververs have been repeatedly asked if the blog was a response to the National Guard memo disaster at "60 Minutes: Wednesday" and the Thornburgh-Bocardi report on it that came out in January 2005. The short and honest answer is no. Perhaps the answer ought to be yes, but it isn't. Public Eye was hatched from a different egg.

That is not to say we were not all constantly aware of the damage this institution had suffered and deeply hoped Public Eye would help with the repairs, both within CBS News and, sorry, in the public eye. We had watched and been impressed by the way The New York Times appointed and used a public editor after their awful problems.

So, yes, the people who run CBS, CBS News and CBS Digital believe Public Eye will help the institution, its journalism and its relationship to the audience on the Internet in the post-blog era. But this is not a venture without risk. Press critics, armchair critics, bloggers, ideologues and other journalists are a tough crowd, quick to throw darts, slow to toss roses. I'm quite confident, for example, that many think my little essay is a whitewash, corporate propaganda at its oiliest.

Some in our audience will think this whole project is a public relations move, something even more devious than that or just a big fat bore. Some bloggers will think this isn't bloggy enough and some ombudsmen will think this isn't ombudsmanesque enough.

Some within CBS News itself are understandably leery. Some are downright hostile.

There's not much we can do about any of that except try hard and repeat that our aim is true.

No other broadcast or cable news outfit has attempted something like this. Sorry to hammer away at the point, but it's true and we're proud.

We have little doubt you'll let us know what you think of what we're doing. And that's the way it should be.

If you want to e-mail me directly, I'm just a click away.