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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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January 14, 2005

CBS Report Panel Endorses "View From Nowhere"

Posted by Ernest Miller

The report of the Individual Review Panel on the September 8, 2004 60 Minutes Wednesday segment, "For the Record," (234-page PDF, "CBS Report"), is a devastating indictment of CBS News' handling of their report on the forged Killian Memos. I followed the CBS News' response to criticism of the report and their unethical and incompetent response closely (Incompetent AND Unethical: The Story of CBS News' Response to Criticism of the Killian Memo Forgeries - Part One). Earlier, I wrote about why Andrew Heyward should resign given the Report's findings (Why Does CBS News President Andrew Heyward Still Have His Job?) and another critique (Omissions and Other Critiques of the CBS News Report).

Many have noted one of the conclusions of the Panel: that there was no political agenda by individuals at CBS News against the President (p28 of the Report):

However, the Panel cannot conclude that a political agenda at 60 Minutes Wednesday drove either the timing or the airing or the Segment or its content.
However, to say that there was not an "agenda" is not to say there was no bias. And it is in this mistaken presumption that the Panel and their Report have done CBS no favors. Note this statement from Linda Mason, CBS News' senior vice president for standards and special projects, the person CBS has created a new position for due to the Panel's recommendations (Network's brass, critics take solace in the report):
"That for us was the big headline: That there was no political agenda, because that would have been terrible," said Linda Mason, CBS News' senior vice president for standards and special projects, whose position was created Monday in response to the report. "We were all greatly relieved to see that the panel did extensive work and gave us a clean bill of health in terms of it not being politically motivated."
Well, I wouldn't exactly call the Panel's report a "clean bill of health." A "clean bill of health" would seem to indicate that nothing at CBS needs to change. Probably not the best point of view for the person who is supposed to make sure similar errors don't happen in the future. Even the Panel found (p28):
The Panel reviewed this issue and found certain actions that could support such charges [of political motivation].
Fired reporter Mapes reads even more into the Report's findings:
Mapes, whom the report saddled with much of the blame for what went wrong, said in a statement, "I am heartened to see that the panel found no political bias on my part, as I have none. For 25 years, I have built a reputation as a fair, honest and thorough journalist."
Nevermind that one can earn a reputation as a fair, honest and thorough journalist while acknowledging bias (indeed, such transparency might help one earn such a reputation). But that is not what the Panel found. The Panel determined that there was no political agenda, not that there was no bias, and that is why the Panel did CBS no favors.

Read on...

[UPDATE] Jeff Jarvis is an earlier entry:

The panel and the network refused to deal with the key issue of bias. They could have denied it. They could have taken the bull by the horns and grappled with the fact that, of course, Rather and Mapes have bias personal perspectives about Bush and this story and more. But they did the worst thing: neither. That's no way to build credibility and trust with your public.

Does CBS News have a political agenda? No, of course not. It is almost a foolish question to ask. As a news network, CBS's policies are clear and favor neutral, objective reporting. As an institution, CBS News does not have a political agenda and I would be shocked if there was evidence to contradict this.

However, that does not mean that CBS is bias-free. Indeed, it would be incredible if any human institution were.

Are human beings biased? Of course they are. We are all biased and, often, the worst biases are the unacknowledged ones. If you don't acknowledge that you are biased, you are far more likely to make errors in judgement as a result of those biases. That is the problem that CBS News and all journalism that adheres to the "view from nowhere" face. However, by absolving CBS News of a "political agenda" the Panel ducked the much more difficult question of bias, and whether bias might have made the errors CBS News committed more or less likely. By ignoring the question of bias, and focusing solely on the nearly foolish charge of "agenda," the Panel permits CBS News to continue along its merry way without introspection on how to deal with the inevitable biases all journalists must face.

The question is not whether CBS News was out to "get" President Bush. I have no doubt that CBS News would have been interested in a similar story about Sen. Kerry and would have also pursued it. However, given the evidence noted in the Report, I find it difficult to believe that those involved would have been equally likely to make the same errors in pursuit of a story against Kerry. I find it difficult to imagine, for example, that Mapes would have arranged contact between Karl Rove and one of her sources.

This isn't about political agendas, but biases that blind people to error.

The absolute level of blindness can be seen here (p211):

The political agenda question was posed by the Panel directly to Dan Rather and his producer, Mary Mapes, who appear to have drawn the greatest attention in terms of possible political agendas. Both strongly denied that they brought any political bias to the Segment. The Panel recognizes that those who saw bias at work in the Segment are likely to sweep such denials aside. However, the Panel will not level allegations for which it cannot offer adequate proof. [emphasis added]
Of course they brought political bias to the Segment. How could they not have? Show me someone who is entirely apolitical, and I'll show you someone not fit to be an investigative journalist or even an anchorman. However, the fact that they have biases does not mean they operate with a particular agenda.

That, I think, is the real problem with the Panel's Report. Not only are they operating with an extremely high standard of proof, perhaps inappropriately, but certainly with the wrong measure (p 211):

There has been widespread speculation in the media that the September 8 Segment was motivated, in whole or in part, by an anti-Bush political agenda.
Here they focus on whether or not there was an "agenda" or list of things to be done. That isn't how it works. Nor are journalists regularly "motivated" by an "agenda." Journalists are "motivated" to get a good story. However, journalists frequently err due to bias.

Agendas and motivations are straight-forward. However, bias is a much more subtle creature. Bias inhibits impartial judgements. Bias colors decision-making. Bias blinds one to error. Unfortunately, the Panel wasn't looking for that, the Panel was looking for an "agenda." Furthermore, the Panel confused the issue:

The Panel does not find a basis to accuse those who investigated, produced, vetted or aired the Segment of having a political bias (p211).
Did those investigated not have an agenda, or did they not have bias? Furthermore, did the Panel really mean to say that there is no basis for an accusation of bias? Obviously, there was a basis for accusation. You can hardly find that there was an appearance of bias and yet still claim there is no basis for an accusation. There may be no basis for a finding, but certainly there must be a basis for an accusation. Come on, these are lawyers writing this report.

More importantly, if the Panel is claiming that there is no bias, as the above sentence indicates, then the Panel must clearly be mistaken. Perhaps, the Panel could not make a determination as to the specific bias, but that is yet another path the Panel might have taken but didn't.

There is further evidence that the Panel had a very narrow view of what bias looks like (p211-2):

It should be noted that 60 Minutes Wednesday was hardly alone in pursuing the story. Other mainstream media, including USA TODAY, The New York Times and The Associated Press, were pursuing the same story in what was clearly a competitive race to be first. In fact, USA TODAY on September 9 published a similar story relying on the same Killian documents, but has not been as criticized for its story as CBS News has been for the September 8 Segment. The Panel recognizes that some will see this widespread media attention not as evidence that 60 Minutes Wednesday was not motivated by bias but instead proof that all of mainstream media has a liberal bias. That is a perception beyond the Panel’s assignment.
This paragraph is problematic for several reasons. Yes, the fact that other news organizations were pursuing the same story is evidence against an "agenda." However, the fact that these other organizations didn't run with the story is not particularly good evidence that there was no bias. Indeed, one might ask why 60 Minutes Wednesday erred in running the story when these other outlets held back. One hardly has to believe in a Vast Left Wing Conspiracy to believe that when there is wide spread media attention, but only one outlet runs with a story, that hardly proves that that one outlet is without bias. In fact, it might be seen, not as evidence of widespread bias, but of bias in a single news organization. Of course, that might never have occured to the Panel.

The point about USA Today is interesting, but why make it without adding a bit more information? Is this a taste of the "everybody does it" defense? Perhaps the Panel might also have pointed out that USA Today only ran with the story because 60 Minutes Wednesday had first reported it. From USA Today on September 13:

USA TODAY obtained copies of the memos Wednesday night, shortly after the 60 Minutes broadcast, and reported that in Thursday's editions. The newspaper's editors, like those at other media, relied in part on the fact that the White House did not challenge the memos' authenticity and released copies late Wednesday.

'Since we've become aware of questions about the authenticity we've been pursuing those questions aggressively,' USA TODAY Executive Editor John Hillkirk said Sunday.

Perhaps USA Today also wasn't criticized as much because they didn't have the same level of culpability for publishing the documents (they relied on CBS, which claimed to have authenticated them) and, more importantly, they didn't defend the authenticity of the documents as ludicrously as CBS did. Just saying.

I might also note that even the Panel agreed that CBS News would likely not have been criticized nearly as much if they had decided to take their critics seriously in the early days of the scandal, as USA Today did. Yet, the Panel does bring up the USA Today point? Why?

In any case, ultimately, the main fault of the Panel in looking for a political agenda at CBS is that they essentially endorsed the "view from nowhere." They assume that bias is wrong (p209):

The Panel finds it inconsistent with the need for CBS News to be nonpartisan and unbiased for one of 60 Minutes Wednesday’s producers to seek to open a door into the Kerry campaign on behalf of a source producing documents damaging to President Bush. [emphasis added]
It is not wrong to be biased. Bias is inevitable and even admirable in an investigative journalist. What is wrong is not disclosing or acknowledging bias. What is wrong, is pretending that one is unbiased. Not only is such pretense false, but it leads one down the path of self-deception and error.

If one acknowledges bias, or the potential for bias, then one can began seeking solutions that reduce the possibility of error because of bias. However, if you don't even acknowledge the problem, how can you find a proper solution?

With their findings regarding bias, the Panel has only set CBS up for more error down the road. Those remaining at CBS will continue to operate under the presumption that they are unbiased, which will only encourage error, rather than discourage it.

The Panel has done CBS no favors.

Comments (6) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Blogging and Journalism


COMMENTS

1. LouisianaLightning on January 14, 2005 10:38 PM writes...

"The question is not whether CBS News was out to "get" President Bush. I have no doubt that CBS News would have been interested in a similar story about Sen. Kerry "

What about the Swift Boat Vets story? Seems to me that's a similar story about Sen. Kerry? How much time/research did CBS put into that story?

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2. mikem on January 15, 2005 08:30 AM writes...

I agree with LL. Great article, but your Kerry statement is belied by the total lack of curiosity shown by the MSM towards Kerry's wartime record. He refused to release his records. (No demand for openness from the media.) He had his discharge upgraded by Jimmy Carter. (No demand from the media for the original discharge info.) He admitted (finally) to having given false testimony before Congress about his "Cambodian" adventures and received no negative publicity from CBS and most of the MSM for doing so. Frankly, Mr. Miller, I consider your statement, as LL cited above, to be dishonest or reflective of extreme naivety, neither of which I would normally associate with an Annapolis grad. CBS, and the other old MSM giants, went after Bush's honorable discharge as if he had paid a forger to print it, but refused to even bother Kerry with a public question about his own "other than" discharge that needed to be upgraded. And you think there is nothing biased about all that? Either dishonest or naïve.

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3. H. Lewis on January 15, 2005 04:30 PM writes...

The U.S. is the laughing stock of the world.
a. We fight in Afganistan for free elections and Democracy.
b. We lose over a 1000 troops in Iraq for the posibility of an election there.
c. We send monitors and condem elections in the Ukraine.
d. We allow Dan Rather and CBS to manipulate the elections in the US.

Where is the call for a CRIMINAL investigation and a CIVIL LAWSUIT against CBS and VIACOM???

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4. Richard Aubrey on January 16, 2005 04:14 AM writes...

While I think the differentiation between agenda and bias is useful, it does not follow that CBS had no agenda.
Other commenters here and elsewhere have done what would in science be called an experiment: Repeated the process with one variable changed, i.e., the dems or Kerry is the object, not the reps or Bush.
The result: Perfectly correlates with party, entirely explained by the putative CBS (and in the larger view) MSM agenda to get Bush to help Kerry. For a Cliff's Notes version, we have Evan Thomas' stipulation that it is so.
Before the sticklers get overwrought, I know the other commenters didn't actually "perform" the experiment. They merely pointed out the fact that the hypothesis that there is no agenda would have called for the media to dig into Kerry's past as they did Bush's. They pointed out that the hypothesis that there is an agenda would have predicted the media would go like rabid weasels after Bush's past and ignore invitations to check Kerry.
One hypothesis predicted the actual results.

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5. big dirigible on January 16, 2005 02:31 PM writes...

On the face of it, trying to make a meaningful distinction between "agenda" and "bias" seems like vintage Clintonian hairsplitting. Some precise definitions are in order if that tactic is to be taken seriously. Perhaps "gross personal bias" only becomes synonymous with "inappropriate corporate agenda" when nobody compensates for his own bias? That would require an argument, not a bald-faced declarative statement.

Compensation for bias is not a new problem - it was, at one time, one of the differences between a good editor and a poor one; the good editor kept reports (and reporters) from running off the rails (to either left or right). Perhaps CBS has an editor problem, above all else.

This sentence certainly sets off the alarms -

"Does CBS News have a political agenda? No, of course not. It is almost a foolish question to ask."

Let's postulate that the writers of the report are not foolish - not even almost foolish. Whitewashers they may be (and I express no opinion on that question, I just acknowledge that it exists), but fools, no. That implies that they would disagree that "does CBS News have a political agenda" is a foolish question (I am assuming that they didn't deliberately pose a foolish question just to waste everyone's time). And that implies that they don't share your distinction between "bias" and "agenda." And, lacking a decent argument, neither do I.

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6. Wendi Sue on January 16, 2005 09:54 PM writes...

You say: "I have no doubt that CBS News would have been interested in a similar story about Sen. Kerry and would have also pursued it."

And with that one sentence spoil an otherwise excellent article. How can you have so much faith? Kerry refused to release his military records at all and one of the medals on his own website was not a medal ever issued- that is very much a similar story- actually, an even juicier story, and CBS never lifted a finger to pursue it. Instead, they did their best to bury it.

I am really curious to understand how you can make the above claim- honestly, sincerely curious. CAn you please explain it? Were you perhaps unaware that Kerry has never released his military records? Or maybe you didn't know about the Christmas in Cambodia claims? Or that he claims to have earned a medal that does not exist?

Wendi

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