Why CBS News "Played Ball" With Syrian Vice President

Last night, the "Evening News" ran a "CBS News Exclusive" story about a secret meeting of senior Iraqi Ba'athists in Syria. The piece, from correspondent Elizabeth Palmer and producer Heather Abbott, featured an interview with Syrian Vice President Farouk al-Shara, who talked about Syria's potential role in ending violence in Iraq. (You can watch a six minute cut of the interview by clicking on the video box.) In the interview, al-Shara comes across as poised and articulate. But there is a piece of information that viewers of both the "Evening News" piece and the full interview do not have: The interview they are seeing actually marks al-Shara's second sit-down with CBS News in just a few days. The first interview had not gone well, and, as a result, Syria had refused to allow CBS News to feed the tape of the interview from Damascus.

Palmer wrote about the situation in a Reporter's Notebook. Al-Shara, who was recovering from a cold, seemed off-balance for portions of the interview, and responded with an embarrassing "I don't know" to Palmer's question about who attended the secret meeting. "[A]s an old pro in the not-so-gentle art of American-style TV interviews," Palmer wrote, "he knew his clumsy 'I don't know' would make him look ill-informed at best, and incompetent at worst."

So a Syrian fixer told CBS News that "[t]he vice president doesn't want you to broadcast the interview." And since state owned Syrian television satellite facilities were the only option for transmitting the interview, CBS News had little say in the matter. As Palmer reports, the fixer had said that "Syrian TV will refuse to send the pictures…and of course you might not ever get another visa to return to this country." If CBS News had felt strongly that the tape get out of Syria, there was one option: To drive to Lebanon and feed the tape from there. But if that had been done, it could have poisoned the relationship between CBS News and Syria, and it would likely have meant that CBS News journalists would have had a harder time reporting from the country – if they could get back in at all.

The fixer suggested that Palmer re-interview al-Shara, and CBS News agreed. I asked Palmer if she was uncomfortable with the arrangement. "Under normal circumstances, we wouldn't have played ball, but because there was no breaking news story in the first interview, and because of the downside of defying the request, we did," she said. "You always have to be cognizant of the fact that they can take away your ability to cover a story at all."

I also asked why Palmer did not disclose on the air that viewers were seeing a re-interview. After all, al-Shara was being given a second chance to answer questions he had heard a few days previous, and was presumably more prepared than he otherwise would have been. "News reports are a tight two minutes or so, and you have to keep it tightly focused," Palmer said. "What he was saying was much more important than what happened to us as reporters. If there was a good hard news reason to talk about having to do the redo, we would have put it in."