Politics & Policy

How to Fix The Mess At Cbs

It's happened before, and the way out is clear.

Do you remember Michael Gartner? Probably not.

Gartner used to be president of NBC News, until the scandal at Dateline NBC blew him out of his job. That scandal began, you may remember, in November 1992, when Dateline aired a segment on General Motors trucks that allegedly had a dangerous tendency to catch fire in side collisions.

True to TV-news-magazine form, Dateline wanted some dramatic video to illustrate the problem. So producers set up a test in which a car would slam into the side of one of the trucks, leading–hopefully–to a spectacular, caught-on-tape explosion.

But what if the truck didn’t blow up? Would the Dateline team have to get another one and try again? That could get expensive.

So to ensure a positive result, the Dateline producers placed small incendiary devices in the truck. And sure enough, it blew up very nicely.

The people at General Motors thought there was something suspicious about the report. A few months later, having done an extraordinarily detailed study of the matter, they filed a defamation suit against NBC.

Michael Gartner stood firm. While he admitted that NBC had used what he called “sparking devices” in the demonstration, he claimed that GM’s accusation was a distraction from the real story. “GM sought to divert attention from the central issue,” Gartner said, “namely that there appear to be fundamental problems with the safety of its trucks.”

“We remain convinced that, taken in its entirety and in its detail, the segment that was broadcast on ‘Dateline NBC’ was fair and accurate.”

The short version of that is that Gartner was arguing that the Dateline demonstration was fake but true. But that tough stance didn’t last long.

GM filed its lawsuit on Monday, February 8, 1993. Gartner’s response came the same day. By the next night, Tuesday, NBC was in full mea culpa mode. The company announced it had settled the lawsuit with GM–in a single day!–and Dateline co-host Jane Pauley told viewers that the rigged demonstration was “a bad idea from start to finish.”

The program’s other host, Stone Phillips, said, “We deeply regret that we included the inappropriate demonstration in our ‘Dateline’ report. We apologize to our viewers and to General Motors.”

Off camera, Gartner was backing up at 100 miles an hour. “We made a mistake,” he said in a memo to the staff. “Now we need to find out what went awry.” A couple of days later, Gartner announced that NBC had hired two outside lawyers to investigate the incident.

“We must move on,” he said.

But top NBC executives were the ones moving on. They didn’t even wait until the completion of the outside investigation to make a decision about Gartner’s future. On March 2, less than a month after NBC’s apology, he was forced out.

A little more than two weeks later, NBC fired three more people–the Dateline executive producer, senior producer, and segment producer responsible for the GM report.

On March 22, NBC made public the results of its independent investigation. It was strongly critical of virtually every decision made in the GM story. And the last person involved with the segment, the on-air reporter, was booted from the network, sent to NBC’s local station in Miami.

In six weeks–between February 8 and March 22–NBC took care of its Dateline problem. No, the network did not fully recover in that period of time. But it set its affairs in order and laid the groundwork for its eventual recovery.

Does any of this sound familiar?

We are now in the third week of the Rathergate scandal, and there are clear indications that CBS News has no intention of following the meticulous procedures necessary to handle the credibility problem created by its broadcast of forged documents in a segment questioning President Bush’s record of service in the Texas Air National Guard.

After stonewalling for eleven days, CBS News anchorman Dan Rather admitted a “mistake in judgment,” which he said “was made, however, in good faith and in the spirit of trying to carry on a CBS News tradition of investigative reporting without fear or favoritism.”

Later, CBS News announced the “independent investigation” of the matter to be run by former attorney general Richard Thornburgh and former Associated Press chief Louis Boccardi. So far, however, CBS News executives seem more interested in setting up Mary Mapes, the producer of the segment in question, as the fall-person.

Of course Mapes should go, but remember the lessons of Dateline. If that example were followed, then the 60 Minutes Wednesday producer, senior producer, and executive producer would all have to go. And then the president of CBS News. And then–well, then the on-air reporter.

Perhaps he’d like a job in Miami.

Byron York worked for NBC’s owned-and-operated station in Washington at the time of the Dateline scandal. A version of this first appeared in The Hill.

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