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Outside Voices: Danny Schechter Dissects CBS News

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Each week we invite someone from outside PE to weigh in with their thoughts about CBS News and the media at large. This week's guest, Danny Schechter, editor of Mediachannel.org and the blog NewsDissector, examines the influence of bottom-line interests on news divisions. As always, the opinions expressed and factual assertions made in "Outside Voices" are those of the author, not ours, and we seek a wide variety of voices. Now, here's Danny:

For me CBS was always the mothership of TV news and standard-setter for the industry. Even when I worked at ABC News and CNN, there was a sense of CBS as the news leader. The film "Good Night, and Good Luck" offered a flashback to the days when the network made its reputation by challenging those in power. Today, it seems that it's safer to play the role of handmaiden.

CBS is no longer an oasis in the desert of that proverbial great wasteland but a port of call. The "golden years" are honored in retrospectives but CBS too has succumbed to the bottom-line dictates of corporate pressure. The House of Murrow has been repositioned as the home of "Survivor," country music awards and dramas about crime scenes.

Like other networks, CBS has gone from serving democracy to targeting demographics. News is no longer what the "Big Eye" is known for. The news division was strip-mined by Larry Tisch when he was in command. Later show-biz merged with news-biz under what the kids who work at MTV call "the Viacomese."

What was always a tug of war between conscience and commerce seems have been decided by bottom-line dictates.

The evidence? CBS alumni are inundating the bookstores with highly detailed tell-all tales explaining the decline. There's Mary Mapes, who indicts CBS's parent company for not standing by Dan Rather in his probe of the president's military service, or lack thereof. There's distinguished news veteran Tom Fenton lashing out at the lack of coverage of the world. And former producer Kristina Borjesson charges CBS censorship in her book, "Into the Buzzsaw."

Then, in a class by himself, there's one-time liberal turned renegade Bernie Goldberg, repositioned as media darling of the far right with pandering tomes that seem motivated more by avariciousness and personal bitterness than critical insights. The former correspondent has built a new career bashing his old employer as the poster boy of that bugaboo, the "liberal media."

What was so liberal when CBS was hailed by the conservative and patriotically-correct Media Research Center in 2003 for best war coverage by a network? (Fox won their kudos for cable coverage.) Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) found "that Rather's broadcast had the highest percentage of official U.S. sources (75 percent) and the lowest number (less than one percent) of U.S. anti-war voices (Extra!, 5-6/03)."

What's so liberal about a media environment that led Dan Rather himself to confess on BBC that he pulled punches in his post 9/11 coverage for fear of being "necklaced" (i.e. having a burning tire put around his head) if he strayed from the Bush war on terror mantra?

Bill Plante, CBS White House correspondent, told an interviewer who asked what, in retrospect, could have been done differently. His response is quoted in my book, "When News Lies," about TV war coverage:

"You're basically asking me to suggest that the news media could have done something in this case and I don't think that the way we operate we could have. The news media in the United States are not generally argumentative about the processes of government. They may be skeptical and generally are but not argumentative."

In the light of many media acknowledgements of how flawed the coverage was - a reality later acknowledged by former CBS News President Andrew Heyward at a Stanford seminar - does this rationalization pass muster? The public expects facts, background and contextualization, not "arguments."

To compare being critical to being "argumentative" illustrates the condition of a White House Press corps justly accused of being deferential to a fault. What is at issue here is not "liberal" ideology but established news practices.

To his credit, Plante then calls for more interpretation of facts but without giving airtime to critics. "Those voices must be heard but it is not the function of the daily press to bring them to the fore," he says.

That's corporate media for you. It was this type of outlook that led to 800 think-alike experts interviewed on the air on all the U.S. channels in the run up to the war with only six dissenting. (It was only a few months back that the case against the war was finally made on CBS, not in a hard-hitting investigation, but in a brave commentary by that curmudgeonly "humorist" Andy Rooney.)

So let's bury that "liberal media" canard in some Museum of Broadcasting shall we? And let's ponder why it was that the Abu Ghraib story was never followed up relentlessly and, in fact, was held up for two weeks at the Pentagon's request. Why is it that it took almost a year for the story to get out? (Military torture trophy pictures first surfaced in May 2003; Amnesty International issued an electronic press release regarding reports of torture in July 2003, but CBS only got there in April 2004.)

Last question: why did "60 Minutes" this past week drop all reporting and offer up a repackaged "superstar" show of celeb profiles? Was there no news, no scandals worthy of exposing? With "60 Minutes II" axed, do we really need television's one hour dedicated to cutting-edge investigations given over to entertainment?

I joined media to spotlight the problems of the world only to discover the media is one of them. As editor of Mediachannel.org, a global media watch site, we have a thousand affiliates with no less a CBS luminary than Walter Cronkite as one of our supporters.

"As you know, I've been increasingly and publicly critical of the direction that journalism has taken of late," Cronkite says in a video carried on our home page, "and of the impact on democratic discourse and principles. Like you, I'm deeply concerned about the merger mania that has swept our industry, diluting standards, dumbing-down the news, and making the bottom-line sometimes seem like the only line. It isn't and it shouldn't be."

Walter's stance and this welcome invitation for a commentary from Public Eye are all of one piece -- a recognition that TV news has lost its sense of mission. A May 2004 Pew survey found: "Roughly half of journalists at national media outlets (51%), and about as many from local media (46%), believe that journalism is going in the wrong direction, as significant majorities of journalists have come to believe that increased bottom line pressure is "seriously hurting" the quality of news coverage. This is the view of 66% of national news people and 57% of the local journalists questioned in this survey."

What's gone wrong? CBS is not the main problem, but it is hardly offering enough diversity of perspectives and critical analysis to qualify as a solution.

At least you're willing to talk about it!

When it comes to serving democracy, CBS could do so much more. The real media crime scene may not be found on the air but where decisions are made and resources allocated -- in the decision-making suites at Viacom, and then in that room ominously called "Master Control."