A charge to the CBS Commission
: Since Jay Rosen nominated me to the CBS commission that will investigate the Rather affair, I’ve been thinking about what it should accomplish. So, here is my charge to the CBS commission:
1. The screw-up: Find out everything that Rather and the producers did wrong — find out how they aired these forgeries and their conclusions based on them — but get past that quickly; it’s not the real story. Report about the reporting; find out who talked to whom when and what they said; find out who passed on the documents and the conclusions. Fine. Treat all that as the 9/11 Commission treated its narrative; it’s just the story of a screw-up, that’s all. It’s the symptom, not the disease.
Don’t fire anybody. That’s management’s job, not yours.
2. The fixes: Make recommendations about how not to do this again — but get past that quickly, too, for that is also not the real story.
We know how that will turn out: more people checking more things, more rules: We don’t cover the waterfront, we cover our asses. Fine.
But be careful: This could also chill gutsy reporting (and not just stupid reporting) and so you don’t want to go too far. Don’t get all anal, OK?
Now we get to the meat of your job, commissioners:
3. Transparency of process: Take a good, hard look at what we, the citizens, deserve to know about the process of news.
It’s sausage and yes, we do want to know how it’s made. It is our news. It is our right to know.
So make it clear how you decide what to air, how you make the stories, what you don’t run, even the debate in the newsroom. When I was at the Aspen Institute for this discussion, many of the (other) gray beards said we in journalism should be judged by our product, not our process. I disagree. Our product is being questioned, so we must reveal our process.
And I say that will work to our favor; it will show how we try to get it right, even when we fail.
And, by the way, if the network had believed in transparency of process, they would not have stonewalled this story for 12 days. (And ain’t that ironic, by the way: Dan Rather goes out stonewalling just like Dick Nixon.)
4. Transparency of bias: This the biggie, commissioners, so don’t wimp out. I say that every reporter, producer, and executive should be quizzed in detail about their own opinions and biases and those biases should be revealed. Then let the public judge their truthfulness, for they already are. Let’s see whether Dan Rather still tries to act as if he doesn’t dislike Bush, then he’s still not telling the audience the truth… and if he doesn’t tell the truth about that, then they will wonder about the rest of what he tells them.
That is why we need to be transparent about our viewpoints: The worst agenda is a hidden agenda. So let’s not hide behind “objectivity’ and all this “Tiffany network” bullshit. We’re human; we have opinions; spit ’em up.
5. Conversation: Now we get to the citizen journalists. And yes, they (we) are journalists, too.
The commission should invite the bloggers who went after CBS into the same room with the highest PTUTB (powers that used to be) of CBS News for at least a day and they should vow to come out understanding each other better. Rather has to understand that we, the people, also care about the truth — perhaps more than he does. He has to understand that we, the crowd, know more than he does. And the bloggers need to understand that not every journalist is a venal viper; they really do want to serve the public.
Speaking of the public, the next day, CBS PTUTB meet viewers and discover that they’re not idiots waiting to be spoonfed. And then the PTUTB meet news sources and discover that they often feel misquoted and screwed.
These encounter sessions should leave even Dan Rather humbled.
6. Future: Another tough one (they’re all tough): CBS has to admit that it’s all downhill from here for network news.
They have to face the facts of cable news (I’d make the mucketies watch FoxNews for 24 hours straight) and the internet and blogs and mobile phones and the commoditization of news. They have to come to grips with the idea (pardon my repetition) that we don’t wait for them to bring the news to us anymore, but the news waits for us to get it. They have to serve us where and when and how we want to be served (probably without overpaid anchors, by the way).
And they have to wrestle with the business reality and the deadly dominoes of more competition and smaller audiences and less revenue and smaller news operations the need to be more efficient and concentrate on what makes them valuable and what doesn’t (i.e., no more sending 15,000 reporters to a political convention where no news happens… and no more fat paychecks to overpaid anchors).
So the bottom line: You the commissioners should imagine what TV news should be. Don’t just fix Dan’s screw-up. Reform and reinvent TV news.
Anything less is only another CYA memo.
: A few more things:
Make sure you don’t just include retired TV news PTUTB on this commission. Bring on bloggers (in addition to me), news sources, viewers, and young people, too (it’s their news next). This isn’t about the priests policing the priests.
And the entire process should be transparent — completely on-the-record and bloggable from the first minute. Don’t give me any crap about how that would chill the commission’s work. It’s time for tough truth love here: All the truth, all the time.