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Ernest Miller Ernest Miller pursues research and writing on cyberlaw, intellectual property, and First Amendment issues. Mr. Miller attended the U.S. Naval Academy before attending Yale Law School, where he was president and co-founder of the Law and Technology Society, and founded the technology law and policy news site LawMeme. He is a fellow of the Information Society Project at Yale Law School. Ernest Miller's blog postings can also be found @
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« SAVE BETAMAX | Main | Rather Shows He is Unfit for Journalism »

September 15, 2004

Crisis in Journalism

Posted by Ernest Miller

As I noted yesterday (CBS Memo Defense: Richard Katz Is Wrong About Ones and Els), I've been closely following the ongoing controversy regarding the CBS memos. I think it is a very interesting and informative example of the development of new media. I also thought it fairly entertaining.

I no longer think it is entertaining.

ABC News has reported that CBS ignored the reservations and concerns of experts it hired to authenticate the challenged memos (Document Analysts: CBS News Ignored Concerns About Disputed Bush Military Records). One of the experts claims to have explicitly warned CBS not to use the documents and that they would be challenged. Another refused to authenticate. CBS never mentioned these reservations in their initial report or subsequently.

CBS continues to stand by the documents' authenticity, relying, among other things, on experts who have remained unnamed for 6 days.

This has entered the realm of absurdity, but I find it difficult to see the humor of the situation. It is comparable to the New York Times standing behind Jayson Blair or The New Republic standing behind Stephen Glass, long after their frauds had been exposed.

The credibility and integrity of anyone directly involved in this CBS story is lost, I believe. They have been complicit in the stonewall as well as tarring the integrity of those who pointed out discrepancies in their reporting. The "experts" they've put forth in their defense wouldn't pass muster at a high school newspaper.

Furthermore, the credibility and integrity of every other journalist at CBS News is in question.

At what point do the members of a news organization have an ethical duty or responsibility to speak out against their own organization? Shouldn't those who claim to be journalists and reporters hold themselves to a higher standard? Shouldn't they demand the same of the organization to which they belong? Reporters rely on ethical individuals in other institutions to blow the whistle when there are critical lapses in those organizations. Where are the journalistic whistleblowers at CBS? What CBS reporter has the courage to say that their organization is engaged in an ongoing violation of basic journalistic ethics? What are we to say about those reporters who simply do nothing?

Moreover, the entire journalistic profession is threatened by the actions of a rogue CBS. Many, such as ABC, the Washington Post and the Dallas Morning News, have done good work. Still, now that CBS continues to engage in ongoing violations of basic journalistic ethics, what will other major media organizations do? Their credibility is not entirely separate from CBS's.

I am serious when I say that this has become a crisis for journalism.

Mainstream media plays an important role in our society. It will and should continue to play an important role. I know we would all be poorer without major news organizations gathering and disseminating information.

The actions of CBS threaten more than CBS.

UPDATE 2120 PT

The Los Angeles Times (reg. req.) demonstrates that CBS News has every intention of continuing this journalistic charade. The article also demonstrates how sone news organizations are prepared to follow CBS's lead (Rather Rides Out Latest Partisan Storm)

CBS News' Dan Rather has famously tangled with Republicans since Richard Nixon was president. Now the anchor finds himself in the midst of another major partisan storm, accused of airing forged documents to support a report on President Bush's Texas Air National Guard service in the early 1970s.
This is quite insulting, actually. Apparently, I'm a partisan because I think it likely that the documents are forgeries. Gee, thanks LA Times. This might not be a credibility storm?

In any case, CBS News is prepared to go down with the credibility ship, dragging the rest of the media with it:

Rather said he has no intention of giving in to those pressures. "Say what you want to about me, I keep my word," Rather said. "No, I'm not going to reveal my source."

"I think we've gone out of our way to reveal more of the process than most journalists do," [CBS News President] Heyward said. "We're going to have to take the criticism."

In the end, both Rather and Heyward said, the issue may never be solved, with dueling rosters of document authenticators lining up in equal measure to proclaim them both real and fake.

"If you report this kind of story, you have to know everybody is not going to like you or how you did it," Rather said, adding "the documents may be a `he said, she said,' but the story will stand up."

UPDATE 2 2200 PT

Jay Rosen has an excellent piece about the role of the media in the election (Stark Message for the Legacy Media). Good stuff. Unfortunately, as I note in the comments, none of this will matter if CBS gets a pass from the MSM for its blatant lack of transparency and accountability. Most press releases demonstrate more integrity than CBS has so far. And, if press releases have as much integrity as CBS, who will be to blame if people come to prefer them?

By the way, snarky editorials are giving a "pass." From the LA Times (A Black Eye for CBS News):

Whatever the truth, CBS' real error was trying to prove a point that didn't really need to be proved.
WTF?

If the documents are forgeries and CBS had evidence that they disregarded and CBS subsequently stonewalled any investigation, casting aspersions on those who questioned the documents, that is not as bad as choosing to pursue a story aiming to prove certain allegations about Bush's service in the National Guard?

There truly is a crisis in journalism.

Comments (9) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Blogging and Journalism


COMMENTS

1. guest on September 15, 2004 04:30 AM writes...

Whole Story - A fraud, not a mistake

Permalink to Comment

2. Crush T. Velour on September 15, 2004 04:47 AM writes...

"The credibility and integrity of anyone directly involved in this CBS story is lost, I believe."

And like John Carpenter's "The Thing" this story is subsuming the credibility of more and more CBS journalists. Now John Roberts has made himself part of a naked obfuscation (a term for which I would previously never been able to think of an example). CBS has been totally taken over by "Michael Moore" journalism.

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3. Fresh Air on September 15, 2004 06:42 AM writes...

Here's the deal: If they admit they have been had then there will be tremendous pressure, perhaps investigatory or prosecutorial, to out the source.

When the source is revealed to be a Kerry or DNC operative, the dam will break, CBS will disappear under the waves and Kerry will lose 45 states. These are the stakes.

But the intense pressure for a scoop may lead to a member of Rather's posse going AWOL himself and offering his story to, say, Newsweek, for a million dollars. Think about it. Most of these flunkies of Dan will have no career of their worth a crap without him around. Just one member of the Rather staff (which is quite large, BTW) who jumps and this whole thing ignites like a towering inferno on West 57th Street. We can only hope.

Permalink to Comment

4. John S on September 15, 2004 08:31 PM writes...

You are so right about the other CBS employees. Where are they? What have they been doing?

Doubtless, there are dozens if not scores of CBS employees who know fonts deeply, and with decades of experience. They worked on their high school and college papers. They were journalism majors. They worked at newspapers. These people know documents, know fonts, etc.

As soon as any of them read LGF, or Dr. Newcomer, or Kaplan's discussion of the Composer, they *knew* exactly what we all know (leaving aside Dan). In light of that, what steps have those employees taken?

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5. Andrew Greenberg on September 15, 2004 10:22 PM writes...

A crisis in journalism? Seriously Ernest, what standing do you have to draw that conclusion, based on THIS?

For years now, we have witnessed massive, mindless and unsubstantiated journalism from every source and point of view! Fox News and CNN have all but abandoned routine fact-checking and even routine means to distinguish reportage from commentary, to the point of near-absurdity. The examples are myriad, well-documented and traumatically dangerous to our discourse. That such reportage, slanted right AND left, has been swinging into mainstream media is a far scarier threat to journalism.

Mainstream journalism critics have been all over this particular issue, as well as the larger question of public discourse, with a far more interesting and balanced perspective, and I would refer any reasoning mind to look there rather than the point-of-view slanted 'sphere for sensible criticism of the state of media.

Indeed, many have sought to justify commentary-as-news and entertainment-as-news by argument to the effect that there can be no such thing as "objective reporting," that all news is inherently slanted. Such post-modern nihilism is, to me, the far greater threat to our public discourse than the Rather piece, which does not ultimately depend upon the criticized documents for the conclusions reported. (And ultimately, I anticipate this is the place to which they will backpedal.

A crisis in journalism? From Rather? Nonsense! The crisis in journalism derives from the overcaffeinated self-important persons who didn't like the conclusion engaging in shouting that passes as a surrogate for the noise machine. Bloggers have no duty or obligation for balanced and uniform reporting, and in some respects mostly epitomize the nihilism to which I referred earlier.

When I hear the right cease lionizing their "new media" heroes, and finding flaws in their reportage, I can lend a credulous ear to such complaints. When I hear people ceasing to credit as unassailable the inconsistent, but allegedly first-hand reports of Kerry critics that fly in the face of factual and documentary accounts, I can view hysterical criticisms of Rather's reliance upon his primary sources as reasonable. Until then, the moral claims here simply ring hollow.

This is not to say that solid arguments raising questions as to the ultimate authenticity or meaning of the documents are not welcome and warranted in public discourse! I agree that some very interesting arguments were made, and some sound questions raised. I also think interesting responses were made. This is fun, but no fair and balanced mind can see the questions raised as conclusive -- yet. Time will tell, and I agree with many that CBS should provide a more forthright explanation than we have heard to date.

However be that as it may, as a part of the non-journalistic 'sphere media, there is no standing to allege, merely because you shout louder, produce bigger animated gifs, and can type packpedaling revisions of previously repudiated arguments while getting the older ones echoed on Hannity, that you have identified anything fundamentally problematic about broadcast media.

Time will tell us whether anything interesting occurred here. For the moment, I found the whole thing astonishingly amusing. But the crisis? That has been upon us for years now.

Permalink to Comment

6. Ernest Miller on September 15, 2004 10:42 PM writes...

Andrew,

You identify many valid criticisms of the media. Media is slanted, biased, and error-prone. There is no doubt of that. However, there are some very fundamental procedures and processes that it rests on. What CBS is doing in response to its critics is objectively bad journalism.

What makes this scandal different is not that CBS likely accepted forged documents as true, but that CBS is resisting all criticisms and not providing minimal transparency. They have not named their experts, they have not provided as good a copy of the documents as they can, they have not provided other information on the origin of the documents (while not violating source confidentiality). This is a blatant and ongoing violation of the basic principles of journalism. Many of the issues of bias and slant are judgement calls and more difficult to deal with. This one is not. If we accept such a fundamental and basic violation of journalistic principles, then what won't we accept?

Permalink to Comment

7. Seth Finkelstein on September 16, 2004 12:23 AM writes...

How can standard operating procedure be a crisis?

Indeed, what won't we accept? Nothing. People have been jailed, even killed, for crimes they didn't commit, arguably even wars have been fought, from scandal-mongering journalists.

Anyone can have their reputation ruined by a dishonest reporter, and it just won't matter.

This case is a particularly blatant instance - but it differs only in being so widely-publicized, sadly not in any fundamental way.

Permalink to Comment

8. Jesse Hutton on September 17, 2004 03:24 PM writes...

Ernest,

I was wondering if you find as appalling and dangerous the use of forged documents (along with other deceptions employed) by the Bush Administration as justifications to go to war with Iraq, where certainly stonewalling and utter lack of transparency have taken place. Is that not a crisis in government?

"If we accept such a fundamental and basic violation...then what won't we accept?"

I should add that I've made no judgement on the authenticity of the documents used in the 60 minutes article. I believe the truth will come out, and that some patience is needed. Jumping to conclusions only seems like more partisan posturing.

Jesse

Permalink to Comment

9. Ernest Miller on September 17, 2004 04:50 PM writes...

Jesse,

Absolutely I consider stonewalling in government a very bad thing. However, government has been traditionally, for better or worse, non-transparent. Stonewalling is an affliction of both political parties when there is information they think damaging.

On the other hand a news organization is not a political party or government. Their credo is a dedication to transparency, which makes their hypocrisy more readily apparent.

It is the press' dedication to transparency that fights government's tendency toward secrecy. Not always succesfully, certainly, but if news organizations adopt stonewalling as a tactic they will become even less successful in breaching government secrecy.

Also, I'm only one guy. I can't write about everything all the time.

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