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Outside Voices: Gordon Joseloff Suggests CBS News Look To Its Past To Map The Future

(Courtesy Gordon Joseloff)
Each week we invite someone from outside PE to weigh in with their thoughts about CBS News and the media at large. This week, we turned to former CBS News correspondent, producer and Moscow and Tokyo bureau chief Gordon Joseloff. Now the first selectman (mayor) of Westport, Conn., Joseloff is also publisher and founding editor of WestportNow.com, a local news Web site for Westport. Below, Joseloff reflects on those who have gone before at CBS News and some news division standards of 30 years ago that he says remain pertinent today. 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. Here's Gordon:

For a number of years, I've wondered why CBS News never took advantage of the wisdom and advice of some its alumni who are still around. (Whether division executives have made similar queries of those few old timers who are still on staff is not known.) After all, it was this group of correspondents, producers, cameramen, editors, writers and other personnel who helped make and maintain the unparalleled reputation that CBS News long held.

Actually, I really didn't wonder so much as regret that it never happened. I knew that the "new generation" of staffers probably thought of the older ones as has-beens who didn't understand or accept the modern way of news-gathering and presenting.

So I'm glad that in this Internet age, some of that wisdom is being tapped here, if not directly by the CBS News division, but by CBS for all to see. I'd suggest another step as well: that as Katie Couric meets current staffers and makes the rounds of affiliates and does press interviews, she also get together with some CBS News alumni. She probably knows many of them already.

It won't be like "Old Timers Day" at the Yankees (a team once owned by CBS, as some older folks may recall), but there undoubtedly will be some worth to it. If nothing more, it will make a statement that she, as well as the current management of CBS News, values and respects those who have gone before and the traditions and principles they represent. And who knows, she might learn a thing or two.

As viewers tune into to Katie in September, many of them will be among those who have not had an evening news habit for years. Many of these viewers undoubtedly remember and admire the names and faces of CBS News personnel from earlier generations, even if they have less familiarity with those behind the scenes from earlier years. If there is any doubt as to the value of age and gray hair, look at the success Bob Schieffer has had.

This should not be the only way CBS bridges generations either. I'd make another suggestion – that there be a CBS News Advisory Board (or some other suitable name) made up of CBS News alumni. They could meet periodically and offer advice and counsel to the current generation. Heck, CBS might even call on the likes of some of them to once again grace its air waves occasionally to offer insights into stories. It's a shame you have to go elsewhere to hear from some of these CBS legends.

I'm not suggesting a return to the past -- just that we occasionally review from where we came with those who remember. All CBS News personnel know that the division has long had a standards manual – a rule book of what you can do and can't do on air and behind the scenes. I still have my dog-eared copy that I first got more than 30 years ago. We all know what can happen when we fail to meet these standards. Nothing more need be said in this regard as it pertains to CBS News.

I know that my old friend Linda Mason is now CBS News senior vice president, standards and special projects. You could not have a better person overseeing this area. She was around when the late Richard Salant, a former president of CBS News and a legal scholar, wrote his preface to an update of the CBS News Standards manual in 1976.

I think it worthwhile to review what Salant wrote back then--forgive the length, but I think his words are worth reprinting in full:

"One (of my general convictions) is the overriding importance peculiar to our form of journalism of drawing the sharpest possible line—sharp perhaps to the point of eccentricity—between our line of broadcast business, which is dealing with fact, and that in which our associates on the entertainment side of the business are generally engaged, which is dealing with fiction and drama. Because it all comes out sequentially on the same point of the dial and on the same tube, and because, then, there are no pages to be turned or column lines to be drawn in our journalistic matrix, it is particularly important that we recognize that we are not [his underlining] in show business and should not use any of the dramatic licenses, the 'fiction-which-represents-truth' rationales, or the underscoring and the punctuations which entertainment and fiction may, and do, properly use. This may make us a little less interesting to some—but that is the price we pay for dealing with fact and truth, which often be duller—and with more loose ends than fiction and drama.

Second, it is my strong feeling that our news judgments must turn on the best professional judgments that we can come to on what is important, rather than what is merely interesting. Again, our function, then, contrasts sharply with the rest of the broadcast schedule which surrounds us, and, indeed, which supports us. In general, to the extent that radio and television are mass media of entertainment, it is entirely proper to give most of the people what most of them want most of the time. But we in broadcast journalism cannot, should not, and will not base our judgments on what we think the viewers and listeners are 'most interested' in, or hinge our news judgment and our news treatment on our guesses (or somebody else's surveys) as to what news the people want to hear or see, and in what form. The judgments must be professional news judgments— nothing more, nothing less.

A corollary of this basic principle is that if we are to provide what it is important for people to know, we must not shrink from reporting what is newsworthy even though there are no pretty or dramatic pictures to go with it. There is nothing wrong with a talking head—provided the head has something to say and says it well. We must not be carried away by the cliche, which, like almost all cliches, is only sometimes true, that a picture is worth a thousand words. It may be and it may not be. A few well-chosen, well-written, and, above all, thoughtful, words may often be worth a thousand pictures. The most exciting thing in the field of information is an idea.

And, finally, this is as good a place as any to remind ourselves that our paramount responsibility at CBS News is to present all significant facts, all significant viewpoints so that this democracy will work in the way it should work—by the individual citizen's making up his own mind on an informed basis. Our job is to contribute to that process and not to make up for them the minds of those who listen to and watch us. We must always remember that a significant viewpoint does not become less significant just because we personally disagree with it, nor does a significant and relevant fact become less relevant or significant just because we find it unpalatable and wish it weren't so."

While these are different times that call for different ways of doing journalism, many of the principles that Dick Salant wrote about 30 years ago are just as pertinent today. And maybe some of those who helped uphold those principles for so many years and are still around can add some value in some way to CBS News today. It won't hurt to ask. Good luck to Katie and all the folks at CBS News.