Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Good Night to Fairness at CBS and Good Luck to all.

Watching CBS news’ 60 minutes on Sunday, I was struck by how far away from fairness the organization has moved, since its heyday. Curiously, the history of seriously slanted reporting by CBS, can be traced to what many consider their finest hour, the pursuit of Joe McCarthy as portrayed in George Clooney’s movie: Goodnight and Good Luck. The story that caught my eye was the expose on wasted dollars in Iraq. What we in the military typically call “fraud, waste, and abuse.” The story was on point in many respects. Billions of dollars have been poured down a dead end funnel in Iraq. Much of it to US based corporations and American profiteers. Still more has gone into the enormous underground economy that exists in Iraq, where direct experience tells me some of it finds its way into the hands of the insurgents.

CBS deserves credit for keeping attention on the issue. One of the major failings of the current administration in this war has been allowing all these taxpayer’s dollars to go to waste. This is a familiar story to anyone following the war. But while it deserves continued attention, the facts should be reported fairly. CBS not only provided a political slant, on at least one point, either their facts were either wrong, or they lied.

For starters CBS talked to Democratic Senator Byron Dorgan about his efforts to have the issue of Halliburton in particular, looked at by a full congressional investigation. Halliburton through its subsidiary KBR, is the largest recipient of contracts and dollars in Iraq. CBS reports that Dorgan’s efforts have been repeatedly blocked by Republicans in congress, in straight party line votes. Not a single Republican politician appeared to respond, nor did 60 minutes state that any had been contacted but declined.

Far worse is the misrepresentation of fact by CBS at the end of the segment. The narration ends with the sentence:
“To date, the U.S. government has taken no action to recover any of the missing money.”

Even if CBS could find no evidence of any recovery effort, that statement would be presumptuous given the size and complexity of the bureaucracies involved. But the statement is in fact entirely false! Entirely false, and I for one, suspect that the 60 Minutes investigative team is aware of this. That makes them liars. Is it possible that they were all unaware, that the Army has withheld payments to Halliburton for over-billing. (http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/5003751/) This story was widely reported. While these attempts have not been entirely successful, to say no effort has been made is disingenuous.

Back in the 1950s at the height of McCarthyism, CBS television news, in the persons of William Paley, Fred Friendly, and Edward R Murrow confronted Joe McCarthy. The events involved are dramatized in last year’s Good Night and Good Luck. David Straihairn’s Murrow and George Clooney’s Friendly are deified in the movie for their heroic decision to stand up to McCarthy. But during the many discussions about “fairness” in public life, the journalists decide that when confronting a monstrous abuser of the truth, such as they deem McCarthy, the normal standard of fairness of reply need not apply.

McCarthy may well have deserved whatever he got. But the decision by CBS to suspend their normal ethical standards has done them as much long term harm as it did short term good. Polling data today shows that Americans no longer hold journalists in high opinion. CBS in particular has had problems, Dan Rather’s 2004 story on President Bush’s National Guard Service demonstrates how CBS news has shed ethics and fairness in order to achieve its own political ends. A kind of Machievellian journalism has become prevalent.

Interestingly, Clooney’s film is widely seen to be intended as a parable for today. It is interpreted as a call for activist journalism. A call for critical evaluation and investigation of the messages coming out of Washington. Murrow and Friendly began their counter offensive against McCarthy by presenting a factual rebuttal to the rumor ridden persecution of a loyal US Air Force officer. But Clooney’s caveat cuts both ways. At the end of the movie, the CBS news organization suspends its own ethics, to get McCarthy. Rather than allow him a standard rebuttal, they cut and paste his worst moments together. In the end the journalists could have achieved the same effect while still allowing him a fair chance to respond. Instead they created a new atmosphere of journalism at CBS, and elsewhere. Now, like then, good stories, stories that deserve exploration, are undermined by the lack of fair journalism practices.

Cross Posted at Mudville Gazette