Eye to Eye: a talk with the CBS blogger

I got a call last week from a PR person at CBS asking whether I wanted to meet Vaughn Ververs, the new CBS Public Eye blogger who’ll be trying to install a window in the cinderblock-and-steel fourth wall of TV news, starting next month. I have to say I was amused and maybe jealous: a blogger with his own flack! But come to think of it, maybe that is precisely what big media thinks every blogger should have: a handler.

But we met Friday in a Starbucks near CBS and across from CNN, the nice PR person sitting silently a table away; she said this was embargoed until today because, I suppose, there’s a press push, as Vaughn ends his first week on the job giving interviews to Variety and the Hollywood Reporter — blogs are show biz! — and the AP, LA Times, Business Week, and the Financial Times.

Vaughn looks like a good pick for the post: He’s friendly, unassuming, sincere, and he has a convenient resume: The author of The Hotline at the National Journal since 2002, he did stints at CBS News and Fox News and also was Pat Buchanan’s press secretary in his 1992 presidential run. I asked whether his GOP cred would help in the House That Dan Almost Tore Down. Vaughn chortled and said that Buchanan doesn’t exactly have GOP cred. In his career, he said, “I think I’ve been able through that to achieve sort of a balanced cynicism.” He said that Hotline was balanced and he wants Public Eye to be balanced.

When CBS News President Andrew Heyward announced Public Eye, he said the blogger would not have opinions. Vaughn reiterated that. “Ours will be different than what most people think of as a blog,” he said. It will be conversational but not flip; it will be edited; and it will “not be opinionated.”

Try this on for size: I think there’s no such thing as an objective blogger. Or you’re probably not blogging. You’re probably not talking with people, eye to eye. We’re about to kill the myth that journalists can be thoroughly objective; let’s not start trying to accrete that artificial ethic to blogs. I say that opinion is the proxy for transparency and it also makes a relationship more compelling: Agree or disagree with him, you knew where former NY Times Public Editor Dan Okrent stood and he made an interesting read; the current Timesman, the more balanced and traditional Byron Calame, is as dull as limestone.

As I pushed back on this, Vaughn conceded that the decisions he makes on what to write about will, of course, reveal opinions. But his assignment in this regard is clear: He’s not there as a political debater.

He’s also not there as an ombudsman, charged with answering every complaint and question about CBS News (now that would be a nightmare job). Heyward coined the job description “nonbudsman.”

Exactly what Public Eye will be, Vaughn says, is “eclectic” — which is to say, I think, that it’s still being invented. In fact, Vaughn is looking for advice and at the end of this post, I’ll ask you to give him some.

So far as I can tell Public Eye will include efforts to:
* explain how and why a story gets on the air, with video from behind the scenes, including from occasional news meetings, “following a piece from inception to air.”
* answer questions and complaints about CBS News stories — whether that’s “a critique that’s launched on Rush Limbaugh or the blogs” or from an email to the network.
* “facilitate a discussion” between the public and the news organization (I’d say that’s the most important task).
* and sometimes join in a discussion about issues faced by journalists outside CBS News (his example: using the Bob Costas’ refusal to talk TV trash as a peg to ask journalists at CBS “about what talent’s responsibility is vis a vis the editorial process: can a correspondent at CBS News refuse to do an assignment?”).

Being an opinionated blogger, I wasn’t shy about giving my two cents. I said that Job No. 1 should not be explaining how the news is produced but instead discussing the substance of the news and what it says.

On his relations with CBS News: Vaughn reports up to Larry Kramer, president of CBS Digital Media, and not to Heyward, giving him some separation. He says he has told CBS News staffers, “Treat me like Howard Kurtz if you want to. If you don’t want to comment, you don’t have to comment.” He added that he would reveal if a CBSer wouldn’t comment. He said he is not there as a critic of CBS News: “I’m not the judge, jury, and prosecutor of the case against CBS News or anything else.” He said that so far he has found “there’s a lot of willingness to go along with this.”

I think initially there was some trepidation because this is a hard concept to explain to people… I think the fear is that we’re going to come in and take a magnifying glass over every newscast and criticize it… It’s not what we’re going to do. If we see something we have a question about, we’re going to try to get an answer.

The company is devoting resources to the blog: Vaughn, who’ll be based, oddly, in Washington, one full-time person in New York and another in Washington.

I asked what he thought of NBC anchor Brian Williams’ blog. On the one hand, he said, it’s trickier to be the anchor, but on the other hand, Williams can give readers more perspective. He said they are trying to do similar things. I think there were two telling moments in the New York Times’ feature on Williams’ blog last week: First, the lead said that Williams was channeling his “inner Gawker” — when you become an offhand cultural reference, you know you’ve arrived — and second the story called on tvnewser blogger Brian Stelter:

…Mr. Williams has managed to captivate at least one influential viewer. He is Brian Stelter, whose own blog – a compendium of the daily doings in television news (tvnewser.com) – reads as if it were written by a grizzled veteran, not, as is the case, by a 19-year-old junior at Towson University in Maryland.

On 10 occasions over the last three months, Mr. Stelter has provided links to “The Daily Nightly” on his own blog. Never mind that at this early stage, Mr. Stelter receives about as many page views, or entries called up on his site, in a weekday (about 27,000) as “The Daily Nightly” does in about a week.

“It makes me want to watch the evening news, and I haven’t watched in years,” Mr. Stelter said in an interview. “It’s so honest. Sometimes I’ll wonder why he’s allowed to tell us what he’s telling us.”

Besides pointing out that in this medium, Stelter is bigger than Williams, what’s neat about this is that a young person — presumed lost to network news — is saying that the human and frank relationship with cold on-air “talent” that a blog enables actually gets him to watch. It won’t save network news. But it won’t hurt.

I asked Vaughn what would have happened if he’d been blogging at CBS News when Rathergate hit. He didn’t seem to have a ready answer for that. “We’d try to get answers,” he replied. “It’s up to CBS News how to respond to us just like it’s up to CBS News how to respond to anybody.” I asked what CBS should have done. “I don’t know. That’s their call.” And then he added that Rather was “just one more chip in the wall of mainstream media that comes on the heels of so many others: Jayson Blair, USA Today….”

I asked Vaughn what the greatest danger is and he replied, “Just not being seen as credible.”

And then he asked me whether I have advice for dealing with the blogosphere. I told him I’d ask you. So leave comments with your best advice: How would you like to see him interact with you? What do you hope to see from a CBS blog? Vaughn seems to be a good guy in a tough but cool job and I think we should help him do it well. So presume you have a friend who snuck into the citadel: What should he snoop on? What questions should he ask?

: Full disclosure: I’ve given friendly (read: free) advice on blogs in chats with Heyward, Kramer (a long-ago colleague), and CBSNews.com Editorial Director Dick Meyer.