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Putting Together freeSpeech

"FreeSpeech" is a new feature on the "Evening News," which bills itself as "a segment of opinion and commentary from a wide range of Americans" that is "intended to create a candid and robust dialogue among viewers about issues important to them, their families and the nation." We've received quite a few e-mails about the segments, most expressing viewers' agreement or disagreement with contributors' points of view and questioning CBS' motivations in choosing them for the broadcast. So, to get a better sense of how subjects are chosen, we spoke with Marc Rosenwasser, a senior producer who is overseeing the project for the "Evening News."

Rosenwasser hopes that over time, the segment will be "the most unpredictable mix of well known people and completely unknown people," he said. "We're anxious for it not to be the 'usual suspects.' We're anxious to hear from parts of the community that are typically not heard from on network television."

If you haven't seen them yet, you can watch the commentaries that have aired so far here.

Some of the early criticism of the segment is that it hasn't been balanced enough in terms of political persuasion. "I'm completely mindful of balance," said Rosenwasser. "On any given night, there is one point of view, but over time it will be seen as balanced."

He explained that in developing the segment, it was decided early on that "we were not going to have a tit for tat" in which opposing opinions a given issue would be presented side-by-side, "but that over time we would accomplish that."

"It's going to be a rich mix of people, well-known and less well-known and it will only reveal itself in its fullness over time," said Rosenwasser.

In seeking out those people, Rosenwasser said many suggestions come from CBS News staff, including producers and correspondents in bureaus around the country and other reporters and news directors from affiliate stations.

Producer Karen Raffensperger recommended tonight's contributor, Joanne Lessner, a mother and part-time actress, whom she had dealt with in the past on a story unrelated to Lessner's topic tonight – her view on why children should be able to take cell phones to school. Lessner "feels strongly about this issue. We're happy to get her on, because we'd like to sprinkle in as often as we can, for lack of a better word, regular citizens," said Rosenwasser. The subject is also timely, he added, because "it relates to ongoing disputes throughout the country about cell phone usage in schools."

Other subjects are very well-known, like Morgan Spurlock, of "Super-Size Me" fame, or conservative radio talk-show host Rush Limbaugh. Rudy Guiliani, former Mayor of New York City, was a contributor on 9/11. "Some people are obviously associated with a topic and others are just original thinkers," said Rosenwasser.

Rosenwasser's team reached out to former White House speechwriter Michael Gerson because he's "obviously a smart guy and now that he's out of the White House he's in a position to offer his own opinions," he said. Gerson came back to them with a commentary on Darfur, which ran yesterday because they were able to peg it to news from the region that day. "We'd like to attach as many of [the commentaries] as possible to news of the day," said Rosenwasser.

And the news of the day sometimes dictates who is asked to appear. For last Wednesday's segment, "We knew we were going to touch on immigration that night, since there was a big immigration march in Washington the following day," said Rosenwasser, who said that Katie Couric and Los Angeles producer Eleanore Vega recommended Los Angeles Times reporter, Sonia Nazario, who had also recently written a book about an immigrant child. They interviewed a few other people to comment on the immigration issue, said Rosenwasser, and ultimately settled on Nazario.

The editorial process for freeSpeech contributors is much like what correspondents go through before their material goes on the air, said Rosenwasser. Producers work with subjects to edit their scripts and the "Evening News" research team fact checks the material within.

Right now there are a few dozen freeSpeech segments that are getting ready for air. "You have to do it every night, which is difficult," says Rosenwasser, who added that most of the contributors are not "trained TV people," which adds a bit of a challenge as well. But Rosenwasser notes that many people across the news division are helping to find subjects. "I think there are many, many people to choose from and we'll have absolutely no problem finding bright people to choose from, from every political persuasion."

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