A Real Page-Turner
By J. Max Robins -- Broadcasting & Cable, 1/16/2005 7:00:00 PM
Want to read a riveting cautionary tale rife with intrigue, betrayal and characters as compelling as those found in the best fiction? Then go to the CBS Web site and download the Thornburgh-Boccardi investigative panel's report into Dan Rather's discredited 60 Minutes Wednesday segment on George Bush's National Guard service.
Written with the deadpan style of a good legal thriller, the 224-page report shows in stark terms how a news organization, pushed to the edge by hubris, competition and bottom-line concerns, can be torn asunder.
It graphically displays what happens to a once-vital organization—a great brand—when it's not well-managed or properly fed. As veteran news research analyst Andrew Tyndall writes in this issue (page 33), the report vividly portrays an organization “on a shoestring, rushed and overworked, without built-in fail-safes.”
In addition, it shows an operation where many seemingly savvy, successful individuals—from super-anchor Dan Rather to disgraced star producer Mary Mapes to longtime CBS News President Andrew Heyward—could be shockingly oblivious to how their organization is perceived by the outside world. As the report unfolds, CBS continues to broadcast hole-filled story after hole-filled story to support the original flawed 60 Minutes segment. It's like reading a horror novel—don't go back into the house!—as you watch CBS personnel repeatedly return to the well, making the specious claim that the dicey documents at the heart of the original flawed broadcast were backed up by a phalanx of experts.
This doomed defense continued for days, even after CBS uber-flack Gil Schwartz, who has as a good an ear for how the media works as anybody, warns all involved that they'd better find two document experts immediately or CBS News “is toast.” Shades of truth-telling John Dean breaking the news to Richard Nixon: “There's a cancer on the presidency.”
Last week when the report was issued, CBS Chairman Leslie Moonves talked to our business editor, John Higgins. Moonves gave the impression that he regarded the scandal and the report that emerged from it as a chance to make some needed changes—and he appeared to shoulder some of the blame himself. “I don't want to sound overly happy about all this, because I'm not,” Moonves told Higgins. “But because of this, we're getting a chance to reexamine CBS News, which is probably something that we should have been done a long time ago.”
That's an understatement, but at least it's a start.
With the release of the report, Moonves quickly took up the panel's recommendations to establish more safeguards. The changes shouldn't stop there. The scandal stemmed, in part, from an organization that has been in perpetual downsizing mode for more than two decades.
Moonves needs to seize the day. It's time for Extreme Makeover: CBS News. That means a corporate commitment to grow the institution, with an infusion of cash, talent and innovation. It might also mean it's time to rekindle long-dormant talks with CNN about a strategic alliance.
In the wake of the report, Moonves issued a statement saying he would turn the current crisis “into an opportunity to make CBS News stronger than it has ever been.” Read the report, and you'll put it down dearly hoping the CBS boss puts his words into action.
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