And Awaaay We Go!

In the weeks since Public Eye's announcement, the most difficult task I've faced has been simply explaining it. The questions, asked over and over again, in many ways still seem unanswered. What is it? Why is it a blog? How often are you going to update it? What are you going to write about? How is this thing going to work?

All seemingly easy questions, yet in launching something so new and unique, I quickly realized the challenges of answering them. In many instances, I don't have the answers. There is no model to follow here, no formula, no directions for assembly. It will evolve, change and develop over time. But I will try, here, to explain further.

Plenty of details and explanations can be found at About Public Eye, which has a permanent home on the blog. There you will find a description on the overall goals of PE — to bring transparency into the editorial process, help facilitate a dialogue with the audience, answer criticisms, proactively inform and delve into broader issues of journalism. Worthy goals but, as they say, it all depends on the execution.

As the media landscape has changed dramatically during the past decade, so too has media criticism. What was once largely the province of a few writing for a small audience of navel-gazing journalists has blossomed into an industry unto itself. In addition to the traditional antagonists (think "MSM" critics), there are now partisan media watchdogs on both the left and the right, backed and fueled by networks of blogs, talk radio and e-mail campaigns. Even the critics have critics.

In ways, this proliferation of media critique can be viewed as illuminating and even performing the service of keeping the Fourth Estate on its toes. But, all too often, it's confusing and ponderous, as with arguments over the coverage of the Katrina catastrophe, with the press accused both of unfairly blaming the administration and covering up for its performance.

We hope that Public Eye will help CBS News join and improve this big, new conversation about journalism in a way that is honest, open and even idealistic.

What we propose to do is help illuminate the process of doing news work, going behind the curtain and looking inside. Our thinking — my thinking — is that most news consumers, presented with enough information, are more than capable of making their own judgments on these issues. Because we are affiliated with CBS News, that's our focus, our beat, our primary subject; but we also recognize that no news organization operates in a vacuum and we'll look at overall coverage trends and the other news organizations. Still, it is within CBS where our light will shine the brightest.

Who decides what makes the "Evening News" and what doesn't? What are the factors that go into that decision? Why was a particular expert interviewed on a given topic? What did they say that wasn't included? How difficult is it to put together a package that runs just one minute and 30 seconds? Why wasn't a certain piece of information mentioned? Those are but a few examples.

We'll seek answers to your questions. We'll monitor and report on specific criticisms of CBS, whether they are raised in the blogosphere, talk radio or any other media outlet. We'll ask executives, producers, correspondents and others to respond and we'll encourage your participation in the discussions.

We won't always get the answers we want and, at times, we'll get no answers at all. But you'll be the first to know when that happens and why, to the best of our ability. There are legitimate reasons for CBS News to hold some things back, be they legal, competitive or business related. We'll try to spell those out for you to understand.

This wouldn't be getting off to the best of starts if we were to promise a response to every e-mail, question or criticism. We simply can't do that in any way that would not compromise the value and validity of the answers. But we will not shy away from taking on any issue in a complete and thorough way. To the people at CBS News, we pledge our best attempts to be fair. We claim no authority over them nor do we set out with any preconceived notions of the work they do.

We'll also try to provide a little fun and history along the way, some palate cleansers to remind us that not everything is as important as we want to make it.

Sometimes we'll fall flat on our faces and we're happy to admit that when it happens. We may miss an angle here or a pertinent fact there and we'll be eager to correct and incorporate them afterwards. In other instances, we may disagree with your observations and we'll say so.

At PE, we walk a fine line in many respects between the news division and the audience. It would not serve anyone's purposes to be either an apologist for CBS News (or the media in general) or to go out of our way each day to snidely nit-pick at each and every decision made on the news side. Both ends of this equation are notoriously hard to please.

Reporters, whose careers consist of putting tough questions to those who would rather not answer them, are not accustomed to being on the other end of that exchange. The audience has expectations that are often unrealistic and tends to project assumptions and motives onto the media that may or may not exist. We'll try to bring down the first barrier in order to chip away at the second.

My "nonboss" Andrew Heyward (the president of CBS News) has taken to calling me the "nonbudsman," his attempt to differentiate our mission from that of a traditional ombudsman. In one sense, it's an accurate description of what PE will do. If you're looking for a journalism professor to render absolute verdicts, this probably isn't the place to be. But make no mistake, PE will have the same seriousness of purpose and will dive into many of the same topics that any ombudsman would.

In the end, our success will be determined by you, the audience. We will make our best efforts to gain your trust by being honest, accurate and fair. We will try to provide informative details along with critical assessments of CBS. We will do our utmost to answer the questions you have and those we ask ourselves.