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Analysis: Probing CBS News

By
PAT NASON, UPI Hollywood Reporter

LOS ANGELES, Sept. 22 (UPI) -- CBS News is looking into how "60 Minutes" came to use documents of questionable authenticity in a report on President George W. Bush's military record, but the episode invites questions about broader issues -- perhaps including the future usefulness of network TV news as a reliable source of information in a free society.

That may sound like an overstatement, but polls consistently show that Americans get their news predominantly from TV.

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A generation ago, CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite was widely regarded as "the most trusted man in America." Today, with the audience fragmenting as the number of viewing choices proliferates, the almost oracular status of the network anchor has been substantially diminished.

In a chicken-egg sort of way, the "60 Minutes" fiasco may be both a result of the transformation and a booster rocket that will accelerate the pace of change in the media environment.

Former Republican U.S. attorney general Richard Thornburgh and retired news executive Louis D. Boccardi -- appointed by CBS to evaluate its reporting on Bush's service in the Texas Air National Guard -- will likely concentrate their research on matters relating to the efficacy of the journalistic process that led to the faulty "60 Minutes" report. Former CNN executive David Bernknopf told CBS MarketWatch the investigation may also look at the "culture" at CBS News and find evidence of political bias there.

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"The panel may find out that CBS has a culture that wanted to believe the worst of the president," said Bernknopf.

However, Los Angeles Times media critic David Shaw told MarketWatch he doubted the "60 Minutes" report was motivated by bias.

"CBS was simply trying to get a great story first," said Shaw. "I don't tend to think that Rather or CBS is biased in an ideological sense."

Marty Kaplan, associate dean of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, told United Press International he thinks CBS's mistake was grounded in a rush to get a scoop on the air -- a traditional imperative in the news business, but one that becomes more pressing as the stakes grow ever higher in commercial broadcasting.

"Every news outlet on television is essentially in the entertainment business now," said Kaplan. "They're trying to grab our attention and to hold it, and they'll do anything to increase their performance as a profit center for their corporate owners. In that race the kind of painstaking, difficult, slow exercise of ripe mature judgment just isn't welcome."

New York Times columnist William Safire has suggested that the investigation of the "60 Minutes" debacle should concern itself with possible criminal violations involving forgery. Victor Navasky, director of the George Delacorte Center for Magazine Journalism at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in New York, told United Press International he wondered whether criminal investigators might uncover another felony as well if they can determine why portions of the president's military records seem to have disappeared.

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"How did his records disappear and when did they disappear?" asked Navasky. "Did they disappear in the normal course of bureaucracy?"

That, presumably, is one of the questions "60 Minutes" producer Mary Mapes was pursuing when she stumbled over documents purporting to show that Bush got into the National Guard through family connections and, once he was in, failed to fulfill his obligations. The question seems to have been overshadowed by the recriminations directed at CBS -- which have been amplified by finger pointing from within the news division.

Morley Safer, one of the original "60 Minutes" correspondents, told The New York Times the document blunder would never have happened on his show.

"These are not standards that would have been ever tolerated," he said, "and it's inconceivable this would have made it on the air on the Sunday show."

In a way, though, "60 Minutes" -- a consistent ratings winner for CBS -- has made a significant contribution to the new environment in which news programs must also be profit centers for networks.

Broadcasting in the United States is living something of a schizophrenic life. On the one hand, broadcasters are legally licensed to use publicly owned airwaves to earn profits as long as they serve the public interest. At the same time, they are increasingly coming under pressure to serve the interest of the corporations and shareholders who own and operate the broadcasting industry.

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Kaplan said the days when news divisions were operated as loss leaders are gone and will not likely return.

"The reason that's particularly alarming is that in the case of over-the-air broadcasters, their free licenses are predicated on their promise to fulfill their public-interest obligation," he said. "So we have a regulatory system which allows stations to renew licenses every eight years by sending a postcard in. In a system like that, there's no accountability for feeding people ice cream all the time. It may be good for the bottom line, but it's (a) lousy deal for democracy."

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(Please send comments to nationaldesk@upi.com.)

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