TV gleans lessons from flap over CBS documentary
The wave of ethical soul-searching, which spread throughout the newspaper profession after the scandal of the Janet Cooke Pulitzer-prize hoax, has finally hit the television news business.
Although there is no direct analogy between the recent CBS-Gen. William C. Westmoreland controversy concerning the Jan. 23 documentary ''The Uncounted Enemy: A Vietnam Deception'' and the Cooke episode, the CBS case is causing the same kind of self-examination within the television journalism fraternity.
Miss Cooke's story, which appeared in the Washington Post, was an admitted fraud, while the CBS case hinges on judgment and methodology. The CBS-Westmoreland controversy centers around the CBS accusation that before the Tet offensive in Vietnam there was a conspiracy to prevent President Johnson from knowing the actual strength of the Viet Cong, since that might have affected his - and the American public's - willingness to continue the war.
TV Guide published an article, after months of research, which accused the documentary of being a ''smear.'' It said that some key figures were not interviewed, that a consultant was not identified as a paid consultant, that the subject of an interview was allowed to see what others had said, that some interviews were rehearsed, that material which rebutted the documentary's ''conspiracy'' theory was rejected out of hand.
CBS News appointed senior executive producer Burton Benjamin to investigate the charges of distortion, and, after several weeks and 32 interviews, Benjamin submitted a 68-page report to CBS president Van Gordon Sauter. Sauter then sent a memo to his staff (and the press) which admitted that CBS News had violated some of its own rules of journalistic practices, but that the violations had not undermined the central thesis of the broadcast. ''CBS News stands by this broadcast,'' he said.
In order to avoid future infractions of the CBS News ethical standards, however, he announced that he would create a new position - vice-president for news practices - to oversee CBS News compliance with ethics and standards.
CBS has been both hailed for its ''frankness'' and attacked for its ''whitewash'' by TV news critics. The Benjamin report has not been released for perusal outside of the CBS News staff. At this time there seems to be no inclination to discipline any of the CBS News personnel involved - producer George Crile; correspondent Mike Wallace (who admittedly spent very little time actually working on the documentary); Howard Stringer, the executive producer who was in the process of moving over to produce the CBS Evening News; news vice-president Roger Colloff or Andrew Lack, at that time just taking over as executive producer of CBS Reports. However, the usual practice in such cases is to wait several months and then simply move culprits out of the organization or into different jobs.
According to a CBS insider who insists upon anonymity, much of the material used by TV Guide was leaked by a CBS News staffer, disgruntled at Crile's ''almost obsessive disregard for the CBS rules'' in his total dedication to proving the veracity of his ''conspiracy'' theory. It is also pointed out that TV Guide, a publication rumored to be losing circulation rapidly, has also been losing the respect of an industry that resented its recent sensationalized story about the widespread use of cocaine in the industry.
The cover announcement for the CBS story, it is pointed out, was ''Anatomy of a Smear,'' yet the word smear was not used in the article itself. TV Guide covers are printed weeks before the actual issue is put together, so it is possible the blurb was written before the story was completed.
The new CBS job in charge of news practices, still unfilled, seems to be similar in scope to the position that already exists at ABC. More than a year ago ABC News president Roone Arledge assigned to News vice-president George Watson the job of overseeing news ethical standards. Watson is empowered to oversee news and documentaries at any stage of production. NBC has no such position and, according to its president, Reuven Frank, has no intention of creating such a job.
''I believe that in the tradition of the news business, it is the function of the producer and reporter to maintain those standards,'' Frank told the Monitor. ''It cannot possibly be a separate function.
''The responsibility is very clear in the news business,'' he said. ''The positions they are setting up constitute prior restraint. Responsibility in the process of gathering news is well established. You don't need somebody else to second guess. To have somebody with that function who is not involved in the basic flow of news is a distortion of the process. I and the people under me assume responsibility for our own news organization. That's what we are paid for.''
Throughout the broadcast news industry there is the concern that is enunciated by former CBS News president Fred Friendly, now professor emeritus at the Columbia School of Journalism. He worries that ''the kind of tough, hard-hitting, fire-in-the-belly journalism that built CBS News will be chilled by this.''
A survey of top news executives and academics reveals mixed feelings about the effect of the CBS-Westmoreland controversy will have on future TV news documentaries:
* Pamela Hill (executive producer of ABC News Closeups): ''It can have a kind of ripple effect throughout the industry. We already have a vigorous editorial check system, but in the long run it may make us say, one more time. I just hope it will not make producers and reporters skittish. It won't happen here. I get no sense that we should pull back, but I do get a sense of be very careful.''
* George Watson (ABC vice-president for news): ''It is important that TV maintain its credibility, because so much of the public depends upon it as their main source of news. I am reluctant to attribute any overreaching significance to this single episode, but it does draw attention to the complex procedures that go into the making of a documentary. It tends to put everyone on notice that here is a serious lapse - a network that prides itself on quality control by its own admission has had a number of lapses. It does raise consciousness about the problems. So, in the long run it is probably a good thing.''
* Norman Isaacs (chairman of the National News Council): ''I think the credibility of print and broadcast news is more than ever under challenge these days. CBS has helped itself by its willingness to look at its own product in restrospect. It actually helps their credibility with a lot of people for them to say ''Maybe we didn't do it perfectly; let's find out how we can do it better next time.
''Although they have been watching themselves pretty carefully since the Janet Cooke case, this CBS case is bound to affect other news programs,'' Isaacs adds. ''And none of the news heads can monitor everything themselves. Sometimes there's . . . 30 times as much tape as you can use.
''I am disappointed at the fact that not enough newspaper editors have tightened up on their procedures since the Janet Cooke case. Only a few major newspapers, maybe 100 at most, have officially taken on tougher policies, and that is good. But what about the more than 1,000 other papers who have done nothing?
''I think this CBS-Westmoreland case will make everybody tighten up a bit more, and that is good,'' says Isaacs. ''And I think TV Guide deserves a lot of credit for moving in and acting as a monitor. You've got to give CBS credit for not saying, 'Buzz off,' then admitting where their procedures broke down.''
* Van Gordon Sauter (president of CBS News):''There is no justification for anybody believing that the Westmoreland situation will have an inhibiting effect on TV news documentaries. I see no parallel with the Janet Cooke case. We have a circumstance here where there was a meaningful story about which till today there are differing opinions about certain aspects of it. We are not dealing with a story made from whole cloth.
''Some of the methodology, some of the pursuit of dissenting opinions, the use of one word (conspiracy) is what we are dealing with.
''Certainly we will be watching ourselves more carefully - that's bound to be the case. But the key thing is that we don't inhibit ourselves in the future, that in some way this will contribute to the values that we espouse. It would be a tragedy if anybody allowed this incident to inhibit the pursuit of controversial issues in TV journalism.''
* Osborn Elliott (dean of the Columbia School of Journalism): ''I suspect all the networks are looking more closely at their operations as a result of this, figuring out ways to improve their credibility.
''But I don't think there is any industry in the country that has done as much soul searching over the past few years as the news industry, print and electronic,'' says Elliott. ''And if, indeed, almost 70 percent of the people get most of their news from TV, then television has a special responsibility. But we are all being very introspective these days - the era of cloak-and-dagger journalism and ambush interviews seems to be coming to an end as all the news media try to tighten their professional standards.''