Politics & Policy

Rather Pointless

CBS keeps its "nonbudsman" on a short leash.

This week, as the blogosphere remembers the anniversary of the forged National Guard memos that ended Dan Rather’s tenure as anchor of the CBS Evening News, CBSNews.com is launching a blog called the Public Eye with the goal of providing “greater openness and transparency into the newsgathering process.”

#ad#But unless CBS gives its new blogger, Vaughn Ververs, room to breathe, this experiment is going to fail.

CBS got things off to a promising start by picking Ververs, a well-respected columnist and editor for the Washington-insider magazine National Journal. Ververs has worked for CBS and Fox News, and was Pat Buchanan’s press secretary during his 1992 presidential campaign. Several people I talked to at the time said that if the goal was to hold CBS News accountable, Ververs was a great pick.

But the p.r. offensive CBS launched two weeks ago to publicize the project included troubling signs that CBS intends to micromanage Ververs and take away his ability to address complaints that CBS News operates according to a left-leaning political agenda.

The first troubling sign was CBS News president Andrew Heyward, whose head should have rolled along with Rather’s but inexplicably didn’t, describing Ververs as a “nonbudsman“–a take on the word “ombudsman,” which in the context of a news organization means a person who investigates the complaints of readers or viewers and tries to address them by providing answers or urging the news organization to take action.

Etymologically, “nonbudsman” doesn’t change the word “ombudsman” into anything meaningful, but what Heyward intends it to mean is that Ververs will be non-critical of CBS News. Instead, he will function like an in-house media reporter taking a “just the facts” approach to addressing controversies at the network.

“I think he will be more likely to get cooperation within CBS News if he were a reporter and not another critic,” Heyward told the Associated Press. “There are plenty of people out there who are criticizing us already.”

Fortunately, Ververs does not answer to Heyward–he reports to CBS Digital Media president Larry Kramer. However, Heyward’s description of Ververs as a “nonbudsman” came across to me as negative and sort of demeaning. I asked Ververs about it during a phone conversation arranged by CBS public relations. He said:

Andrew Heyward uses that term because unlike your normal ombudsman, I don’t work for CBS News. That’s a separation that doesn’t exist for any ombudsman that I’m aware of. Also, my role is not coming in every day and looking with a magnifying glass over everything CBS News has done and picking on them. I want to open up a conversation with people who are consumers of news, who are CBS watchers and readers, and the news division itself. It there’s a criticism, then we’ll say, “Let’s go look into this.” My opinions are not going to be judgmental. We’re interested in helping explain things.

I asked Ververs what he would do if confronted with another situation such as the forged National Guard memos, during which CBS stonewalled for weeks before it finally retracted the story and apologized after the Washington Post, ABC News, and other mainstream news organizations joined the bloggers in questioning the documents’ authenticity. Ververs said, “I would get answers.” Because the news division is only encouraged, not required, to cooperate with Ververs, “It would be up to CBS News” to provide those answers. Ververs stressed that Public Eye is a work-in-progress: “We’ll find out how these sorts of things are handled in the future.”

I pressed on this point: Wasn’t Public Eye created as a response to the forged-memo crisis, in the same way that the New York Times hired a public editor after the Jayson Blair fraud? Wasn’t the idea to prevent such episodes from happening in the future?

At this point the p.r. representative, who’d been on the phone the whole time, broke in and said, “That question would be more appropriate for Andrew Heyward,” and told me she would call me back to arrange an opportunity for me to ask it. I never got that call, but that’s O.K. After all, I didn’t need to hear from Heyward personally that he “felt strongly that letting people know that we are willing to engage in a healthy dialogue about what we do we think will enhance our reputation and give us a competitive advantage.” I wanted to know what Ververs thought, but didn’t get a chance to hear it.

After that, the image popped into my head of a CBS flack holding a gun to Ververs head as he answered my questions. I didn’t want to prolong the guy’s agony, so I ended the conversation shortly after that.

If CBS News wants this Public Eye project to succeed, they’re going to have to give Ververs a lot more leeway to say what he thinks and to criticize the network often. He needs to press for more transparency–and I don’t mean explaining the process of producing TV news stories. I mean pressing the journalists at CBS News to be as honest about their biases as he is in his online bio, so that bias is less of an issue when these controversies arise. I mean making judgments and expressing opinions that are sometimes critical of CBS. Most of all, I mean exposing political activism disguised as reporting. Who needs openness without honesty?

Stephen Spruiell reports on the media for National Review Online’s new media blog.

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