How To Get Bad Press
CBS News created its own media mess
By P.J. Bednarski, Editor -- Broadcasting & Cable, 6/22/2003 8:00:00 PM
The post office sells books of stamps, and had CBS News just spent an extra 37 cents, it could have kept itself off of the front page of The New York Times last week, and saved itself a lot of embarrassment.
Instead, as you probably know by now, the Times reported that Betsy West, a CBS News senior vice president, wrote a letter meant for Pvt. Jessica Lynch's family and military representatives requesting that the heroine of the Iraqi war tell her story to CBS News for a two-hour documentary. There's nothing wrong with that, but West then added attachments that included other ways CBS and its corporate owner Viacom could help Lynch cash in on being a good and brave soldier, including a book deal with Viacom-owned Simon & Schuster, a made-for-TV movie, and even special MTV and CMT country-music concerts held in her home town to honor her.
West didn't say that CBS News could promise or create those extras—only that, if and when Lynch gets an agent, CBS News wanted her to know there were plenty of other folks in the Viacom empire who could make her rich in many other ways and who had some great ideas. Viacom, said West in her letter, offered a "unique combination" of media outlets, ready to exploit her heroics.
What was CBS News thinking?
When the story broke, the Times headlined it " To Interview Former P.O.W., CBS Offers Stardom," and, throughout the article, reporter Jim Rutenberg suggested that when the news division dangled fame and fortune in its pitch for an interview it cheapened itself and raced past the line between a legitimate function of newsgathering (getting the interview) and the illegitimate one (making the news organization a pitch partner for other Viacom units).
A CBS News spokeswoman said last week that the network was "under the impression" it would be easier to send one package of pitches than to send several, because Pvt. Lynch has, of course, been overwhelmed with offers—"bombarded," the spokeswoman said—and at this moment, doesn't have an agent.
I buy that reasoning to a point. If someone at Viacom had put together all the wonderful things it could do for her and her family—an MTV concert with Ja Rule or Ashanti!, the CBS movie! the book deal!—that missive would have been an expedient way to tie-together the Viacom advantage, and I doubt it would have raised an eyebrow.
All CBS News had to do, on its own stationery, was write its own letter, promising nothing but the integrity and prestige of its own news division. It would have cost Mel Karmazin the price of a stamp to have kept a bad story off the front page of what is still the nation's best and most influential newspaper.
Having not done that, all CBS News needed to do last week was admit it had made a mistake, for, even though the news division never promised Pvt. Lynch anything, the perception was plainly, obviously, blatantly there.
Instead, in the aftermath, CBS took a very low road, recalling the recent flap over Times reporter/liar Jayson Blair. Responding to the Rutenberg story, CBS News issued a low-blow statement that began: "Unlike The New York Times' own ethical problems, there is no question about the accuracy or integrity of CBS News' reporting. CBS News does not pay for interviews, and it maintains a well-established separation from other parts of Viacom." CBS complained that it had made it "explicitly clear" in its letter that CBS News "maintains editorial independence from the entertainment division" and "we never tie interview requests to entertainment projects." The CBS response concludes: "Mysteriously, none of those comments found their way into the 'newspaper of record.'"
(By the way, anybody remember how those Survivor castoffs made it on to CBS News'The Early Show the day after? Or how CBS News' Julie Chen fronted for those Big Brother prime time specials?)
Actually, it's astounding to suppose that any agent the Lynch family might retain wouldn't know the names of major publishers, cable channels and broadcast networks Lynch might want to do business with.
But I wish Pvt. Lynch could do something else: Ignore all offers. In a world of instant celebrity, the hero America is waiting for is the one who just doesn't want to deal with the star-making machine, at Viacom or anywhere else.
Bednarski may be reached at email@example.com
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