Politics & Policy

Throwing The Book At Them

CBS looked good on paper.

As long as CBS-related documents are being waved around, I have one that is of ironic significance.

Its authenticity is unquestionable. It is a white plastic loose-leaf binder. Its cover bears the title “CBS NEWS STANDARDS.” I’ll name the source: CBS News Division. When I went to work there two decades ago, each new employee was issued one and was required to sign a receipt attesting that he or she had received it and had read it.

It was typed; from the looks of it in a 12-pitch font of the Times family on an IBM Selectric. The font is not, by the way, proportional.

Its preface was written by the legendary Richard Salant, who said in closing, “[T]his is as good a place as any to remind ourselves that our paramount responsibility at CBS News is to present all significant facts, all significant viewpoints so that this democracy will work in the way it should work–by the individual citizen’s making up his own mind on an informed basis. Our job is to contribute to that process and not to make up for them the minds of those who listen to and watch us. We must always remember that a significant viewpoint does not become less significant just because we personally disagree with it, nor does a significant and relevant fact become less relevant or significant just because we find it unpalatable and wish it weren’t so.”

The document is about 80 pages long–sometimes pages were added, so that, for instance, page 37 is followed by pages 37A and 37B–and fairly comprehensive. Some of it seems a little anachronistic: There is a section on covering riots, and another on covering terrorists back when this generally involved kidnappings and the chief issue was how to keep the network from becoming a mouthpiece for the terrorists. There are sections having to do with the arcana of broadcasting, policy issues such as the circumstances under which commercials may be associated with news broadcasts, whether unbroadcast excerpts from interviews might ever be released, and even (quaint, in this day and age) the general prohibition on interviewing the victims of accidents or tragedies, or their relatives.

Particularly interesting today are pages 37A and B, “Identification of News Sources.”

Though the section is dated October 15, 1981, it begins: “Recently the credibility of news organizations has been tarnished by the abuses of a few reporters who, while claiming to rely on anonymous sources, were fabricating stories. Quite reasonably, these incidents have led to discussion by the public and journalists of the practice of using anonymous sources.”

It goes on to a section on page 37B headed “Standards and Procedures,” which says, in part: “Anonymous sources should be used only when it is determined (1) that there is no other practicable way to obtain and report the information; (2) that the information is factual and of sufficient newsworthiness to warrant its use despite the fact that we cannot disclose its source; and (3) that the source and his information are highly reliable in the particular instance.”

There is more, including this: “Where the use of an anonymous source is necessary, as much information as possible about the nature [underlined] of the source should be provided to the audience, assuming, of course, that this information would not lead to disclosure of the source. Where the source may have a vested interest in the matter to be reported, it is especially important that information be provided as to the nature and/or motivation of the source.”

There is no section on the use of fraudulent documents; there were things that were understood to be such obvious firing offenses that no mention of them was needed.

It used to be, there was even an arbiter of “the white book,” as it was called in the CBS Broadcast Center. His name was Emerson Stone, and his office was across the street at 555 West 57th Street, near the 60 Minutes offices. Violations were to be reported to him, and he could make things unpleasant for transgressors.

My copy of the document is in pristine condition. It provides good guidance and is something I’ve always treated with a little reverence, because it stands for what CBS once strived to be. I’m tempted to send it to Dan Rather, because I think his copy is probably pretty beaten up as a result of having been flung down and danced upon.

But I don’t think I will. For I’m sure that the current view at the CBS News Division is that the document is authentic, but not accurate.

Dennis E. Powell, a freelance writer, is a former newswriter and radio network news editor at CBS.

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