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Consulting The Experts: The Who, What And Why Of CBS News Analysts And Consultants

As John Roberts went through his confirmation hearings to be chief justice of the Supreme Court, they parsed the meaning of his responses to senators. As the threat of bird flu becomes more apparent, they are on hand to assess the government's preparedness. But they're not journalists; they are the networks' news "analysts" and "consultants." Well, what, exactly, does that mean?

"Basically, they exist to fill a particular need or area of expertise that we don't have staff employees assigned to," says Al Ortiz, executive producer of Special Events, and one of those who handles the hiring of consultants and analysts for the "Evening News" and other hard news coverage.

Consultants may be either on-air or off air and "their chief requirement is that they have career interests in specific areas that we can mine on an irregular basis. For that reason, it buys us the flexibility of using them when we need them without having to commit excessive resources on a full-time basis. We can't have full-time staff experts on everything, because we don't always know the direction of the news," says Ortiz.

But the main reason for using consultants is not based on budgetary concerns, says Ortiz. He mentions Bill Harwood, a longtime Space Analyst for the network. "He is so facile on the air during a breaking news situation and takes the time to research things in his spare time and is a walking encyclopedia on things like a shuttle mission. He's useful for us to tap into when story is hot or active because he is pursuing it all the time. … He's a resource that we pull out and use as a way of supplementing our own reporters and correspondents in an area than can be complicated and they don't have the time or ability to be experts in."

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The main function of consultants is "to keep you accurate and competitive in terms of being abreast of breaking news," said Ortiz.

Foreign Affairs Analyst Pamela Falk, for example, is an international lawyer who functions as both an on-air and off-air consultant for CBS News. "We can't afford to have a full-time staffer worry about the U.N.," says Ortiz. "She keeps track of it, lets us know when things are of interest that we care about - like the situation with Iran and its nuclear program."

Falk, like many of CBS News' analysts, is paid by the network to provide behind-the- scenes editorial guidance to correspondents, function as an on-air commentator or be used as an interview subject for news segments.

Consultants are hired either on a long-term or a short-term basis. People such as Harwood and Fouad Ajami, who is a Middle East consultant for CBS News, have long-term arrangements because stories related to their expertise are constantly coming up. Short-term arrangements are made with people who are useful only for the duration of a particular story, such as using former generals as military consultants during a war.

How much the subjects are paid is a matter of negotiation, says Ortiz, and because often several networks are after the same person, bidding wars often ensue. While there is usually not a conflict with consultants contributing to outlets such as National Public Radio or foreign news organizations, says Ortiz, for the most part, the arrangements specify that the consultants cannot appear on competing networks.

Ortiz says that the most difficult thing about securing a consultant "is not so much finding the funding, but finding the right person. There is a fair amount of competition. Other networks are out to hire them as well. When we do reach an agreement on a consultancy it is someone who is known to be accomplished, knowledgeable and sought after."

Identifying the need for a consultant and identifying the best person can originate at any level of CBS, says Ortiz. The suggestion can come from an executive producer or a producer and then proceeds up the chain of command and into a vetting process during which the subject's credentials are checked out to get a full understanding of their expertise as well as any potential conflicts of interest.

Consultants are not held to the same standards as journalists, however, says Ortiz. "You are hiring people who are not journalists," says Ortiz. "You don't charge them with the responsibility to be journalists, because they aren't, but we can't abdicate that responsibility" to check their background.

There is clearly a certain amount of trust that viewers must cede to the network in choosing consultants and analysts who are fair and knowledgeable disseminators of information, at least partly because there isn't nearly enough time to describe their expert backgrounds during a two-minute segment.

"Using a consultant is part of a service you are providing for audience," says Ortiz, "It behooves us to try to describe the person as clearly as you can, so viewers know why you're bothering to ask them to analyze for you."

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