Power-lunch spots and marble memorials to our country's forefathers make Washington a far cry from the vast Western expanse that Vaughn Ververs knew growing up. The new watchdog at CBS News and a quintessential Beltway insider, Ververs recalls a childhood spent feeding cattle, playing cowboys and Indians, or simply roaming the vast Colorado plain where he was raised. So sparsely populated was the region that Ververs played eight-a-side football in high school, instead of the usual 11-per-team game.
“It was Norman Rockwell with an Old West twist,” says Ververs, who also spent part of his childhood in an Alaskan whaling village.
As the helmsman of CBS News' Public Eye blog, he's putting his experience navigating the Wild West to good use these days. The brainchild of CBS News President Andrew Heyward and network execs Dick Meyer and Larry Kramer, Public Eye debuted last week.
Ververs has been referred to as everything from an “omblogsman” to a “nonbudsman” (his official title is editor), and he heads up a three-person crew from CBS offices in Washington. He's tasked with monitoring and analyzing the network's news output and helping the public better understand the news process.
SHEDDING LIGHT ON THE ISSUES
“The main purpose is to take questions or complaints, whether it's a viewer or somebody in the blogosphere, or whether we see something ourselves,” he says, “then look into that issue, shed some light on it, and present as much factual information as we can.”
CBS underwent intense introspection following Dan Rather's flawed report on President Bush's National Guard service last year, but Ververs insists his hiring was not a response to that. Public Eye's launch comes at a time when news organizations are taking considerable pains to break down the wall that separates them from the public, or at least build a window into it. NBC anchor Brian Williams, for one, launched his Daily Nightly blog earlier this summer, and CNN's weekend show, On the Story, shines light on the process as well. The New York Times, after a series of embarrassing blunders, added an ombudsman.
Despite his relatively young age of 36, Ververs—who left the University of Colorado a class short of a degree—has ample experience in both politics and media. He served as deputy press secretary for Patrick Buchanan's presidential campaign in '92, then worked at National Journal's political Web site The Hotline, before jumping to CBS News in 1995. Ververs then spent a few years at Fox News Channel, and emerged as a political pundit—appearing regularly on such programs as The McLaughlin Group, The O'Reilly Factor and Hardball. He returned to The Hotline in 1998 and toiled there until CBS News hired him back this year.
Public Eye is, not unexpectedly, a work in progress; the first few days featured a poll showing the difference between how Democrats and Republicans viewed the media's hurricane coverage, an 18-minute video of a CBS News morning meeting, and the discussion of a reader's e-mail that took issue with the way President Bush was presented in a CBS report. Readers are free to post comments to each story.
The issue of Ververs' objectivity—he says he votes mostly Republican, with libertarian leanings—has been booted around in the blogosphere, with some questioning whether objectivity should even figure into a blog at all. Ververs remains unfazed by the debate. “We're not coming into this saying we're truly objective, and we're not pretending that that even exists,” he maintains. “What we're trying to do is give people the information that will help them make better decisions.”
Besides building trust with the public, Ververs is attempting to establish it with his CBS colleagues as well; it'll be some time before Heyward's gang feels comfortable under the gaze of Public Eye, if that happens at all.
Mike Sims, director of news and operations at CBSNews.com, says Ververs has the skills to make it work. “Vaughn's going to have to earn their trust with his fairness,” he says. “They may not like what he writes, but they'll understand that he's fair—day by day and story by story.”
Ververs has his fans already. Brian Stelter, editor of the TV Newser blog, gives Ververs—and Public Eye—high marks. “They've absolutely got the right guy,” Stelter says. “I'm very impressed thus far—by what they're posting and how much they're posting.”
Jeff Jarvis lauded Ververs' hire on his BuzzMachine blog. “He's friendly, unassuming, sincere, and he has a convenient résumé,” Jarvis wrote. With CBS News long a target of conservatives, hiring Ververs was seen by some as a salve to the network's critics on the right.
“EXPLAINING THE PROCESS”
CBS brass was also impressed after interviewing Ververs. “His clarity on the issues and his fairness are unquestioned,” says Sims. “But the one thing that set Vaughn apart was his enthusiasm. He'll really do well for journalism by explaining the process to people.”
Ververs spends much of his waking hours consuming media, and what downtime he has is spent playing with his three young children. He remains a passionate football fan. Although his own gridiron ambitions fizzled years ago (no college would recruit a 5-foot-10, 155-pound linebacker, he says), he roots for the Denver Broncos and University of Colorado Buffaloes teams he grew up with.
Washington may be a far cry from the Rockwell-meets-Remington setting of his childhood, but he says the two locales do share at least one characteristic: “Despite the fact that the metro area is so large and spread out, says Ververs, “there's a wonderful small-town feel to Washington.”