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."
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.
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.