Topic: Media

Ethics Lessons from the 60 Minutes Fiasco
(9/19/2004) 9/20/2004

The Ethics Scoreboard isn’t a news site, so we shall allow the unfolding fiasco of CBS, Dan Rather and the National Guard memos to be described and analyzed elsewhere on the web, such as and , among others. They have done an excellent job so far. But the saga is a treasure trove of abject ethics lessons as well, and that’s where we must enter the fray.

By now, everyone except die-hard partisans and the occupants of the CBS bunker have concluded that the memos relied on by “60 Minutes” in its Bush National Guard expose are either forgeries or too dubious in origin to support a reliable news story. To inadequately summarize the Byzantine tale of the New Media beating the Old at its own game: politically-minded bloggers saw discrepancies that CBS either missed or ignored, and within a few days the Washington Post, NBC, ABC and others who hardly attended the weekly meetings of the vast right-wing conspiracy determined that the “smoking memorandum” bore all the signs of being a Microsoft Word default-setting lazy man’s forgery; that the wife, son and secretary (who would have typed the document in question) of the supposed author denied that it was his work; that the Texas National Guard head supposedly applying pressure to whitewash W’s shortcomings had been retired from service for more than a year when the memo was written; and most damning of all, that CBS’s own authentication experts had warned the network that the memo was suspicious at best. On top of all of this and unrelated to the memo flap, the man who started the story rolling again, former Texas Lt. Governor (and current Kerry fundraiser) Ben Barnes, has been called a liar by his own daughter.

We all should be able to agree that this is more than enough to make any rational news organization grovel for public forgiveness, but not The Great CBS, the network that has recently given us disguised book promotions for the subsidiaries of its parent company, Viacom, and, of course, Janet Jackson’s breast. CBS’s response to spreading cracks in its “scoop” has been to say that it “stands by its story.” The King of CBS news, Mr. Rather, has reacted with several statements that essentially boil down to “How dare anyone doubt me?”

That might have been an effective answer once long ago, in a network-dominated news industry far away, but no more. There is a memorable and quirky Orson Welles film called “A Touch of Evil” that tracks the moral corruption of a self-righteous detective who can spot criminals with uncanny accuracy. The problem is that he sometimes doesn’t have the evidence to back up his instincts, so he begins to fabricate it, in essence framing the guilty. It is a tragedy of hubris and warped judgement, and CBS and Dan Rather are turning the celluloid fiction into reality. In doing so, both have violated their calling’s notoriously flexible ethical principles beyond all rationalization. Now their credibility is about to expire from a needlessly self-inflicted wound, and not because CBS may have been duped into using a fabricated memo. What marks CBS News and Rather as terminal cases is their joint response to the controversy, a response that demonstrates infection by unacceptable ethical standards.

Incredibly, CBS and Rather’s stance is that the memos are “accurate,” even if they are not genuine, and thus the burden is on the President to answer the questions they raise. Do we really have to list the dozens of persecutions through the decades and centuries that have used this warped and unethical reasoning? Many have cited Joe McCarthy’s infamous and fanciful lists and documents that he waved to intimidate witnesses during his hunt for undercover “Reds” in the government, but the best and most repugnant match is the Al Sharpton’s switcheroo when it was proven that Tawana Brawly herself had faked her rape and debasement by imaginary white racists. Sharpton proclaimed that it didn’t matter that her assault was a hoax, because the issues her public fraud raised were still valid.

Dan, meet Al. And here are two front row tickets to “A Touch of Evil. “

By using fraudulent documents to raise questions about the President’s National Guard service, CBS has disqualified itself from the inquiry. Using forged letters as evidence in court will get the case thrown out the door and the lawyer who uses them thrown out of the profession. A political candidate who uses fake documents to “prove” a contention he fervently believes is true has shown himself to be unfit for office. A doctor who uses fabricated X-rays to frighten a patient into making needed life-style changes is going to lose his license. Now CBS has used dishonest and deceptive methods to develop a story because it could not find enough hard evidence to take it out of the realm of rumor and supposition, and the network’s unethical methods have been exposed. CBS cannot declare its use of forgeries immaterial by insisting that it was in the service of a legitimate controversy. Look at the ethical values that CBS has trampled here:

  • Honesty
  • Integrity
  • Accountability
  • Trustworthiness
  • Responsibility
  • Fairness

Yet CBS seems to think this is all for the good, as long as their negligently embraced forgeries succeeded in raising real questions. Its official statement concluded by saying, “Through all of the frenzied debate of the past week, the basic content of the ’60 Minutes Wednesday report has not been substantially challenged.” In other words, the end justified the means, the means in this case being sloppy research, careless due diligence, and complete abdication of the tenets of responsible journalism. CBS and Rather appear to be incapable of seeing what most of the country sees quite clearly: the issue isn’t whether George W. Bush got special treatment in the National Guard. The issue is a major TV new department and its anchorman using fraudulent documents. (A special thanks to columnist Andrew Sullivan for that economical and accurate framing of the situation.)

What makes good networks ( say thank you , CBS, for the benefit of the doubt) and honorable anchor men do bad things? The same factors that can lead all of us into ethical difficulties. In the case of CBS and Rather, we begin with self-righteousness and add…

  • Bias. Yes, Dan Rather is biased, and that’s not a criticism: the unbiased reporter, like the unbiased human being, is a myth. Human beings have beliefs and preferences, and these support biases, which are emotional preferences that interfere with independent judgement. In some professions, biases are dangerous impediments to professional conduct, and journalism is one of them.

    For most of his career, Rather has been extraordinarily good about subduing his political biases; he is a liberal, almost certainly a Democrat, but he has worked admirably hard if not always successfully at promoting fair coverage. This time, for whatever reason, he did not. Perhaps he was, like many Democrats, enraged that the Swift Boat veterans had caused the Kerry campaign to stumble by challenging the Senator’s claims of heroism. Perhaps he felt it was important to even the score, to delve (for what seems like the umpteenth time) into Bush’s National Guard service. Neither of these is part of his job as a journalist, so it is more likely that his biases on the topic of the president simply served to tilt his judgement in a fatal direction…to accept shaky evidence in support of what he “knew” was true.

    The same biases may well have been at work on Rather’s producer. CBS? For the most part, corporations have only one bias, and that’s toward the bottom line.
  • Self-Ratifying Virtue. It’s one of the ironic traps of ethics: good people tend to know they are good people, and when they decide to do something they often rationalize that it must be right because they, as good people, wouldn’t do something wrong. This is tautological reasoning, but it is insidiously convincing. Rather seems to have been caught in this web; his defensive response to the legitimate questions raised about the documents was to disparage bloggers as “journalists in pajamas” and dismiss questions about the documents as politically motivated. He displayed a mindset that cannot accept the idea that he, Dan Rather, may have actually done something wrong…not mistaken, but wrong. But this was wrong. It is a close presidential campaign, and revelations about either candidate can tip the balance.

    Just as NBC responsibly withheld its story about an unprovable allegation of rape against Bill Clinton in his Arkansas Attorney-General days until the impeachment trial was over, CBS had to have something more substantial than old allegations to trumpet the Bush National Guard story yet again, or risk a legitimate accusation of trying to manipulate the election. The documents provided enough added evidence to justify the story..if they were real. Rather had an obligation to take proper precautions to ensure that they were, and did not. Given the stakes involved, this is more than error. It is a breach of responsibility and public trust.

  • Pressure. Most unethical conduct arises out of actions taken under stress, when good people are tired, sick, burned-out, worried, frightened, angry or otherwise not at their best. Rather is nearing retirement, and is over-worked; CBS News is faltering in the ratings, and the once revered 60 Minutes is diminished by age, cloning, and too much Andy Rooney. Rather and the “Tiffany Network” needed a scoop badly, and it is likely that Rather’s ethical judgement was suppressed by a multitude of pressures and outside factors. His fate is a powerful lesson: good physical, emotional and mental health promotes ethical decision-making.

At this point, CBS’s options to make an ethical response to its self-made document mess are limited. If the network is wise, it should immediately admit its bad judgement, and pledge that it will strive to regain the trust of the public, which has been seriously damaged. Sadly, Rather’s credibility is probably beyond salvage. It is a tragic end to a distinguished career. Ethics Scoreboard can only hope that the lessons of his fall will be learned and heeded by his colleagues, and indeed by all of us.

Update, September 20, 2004:

Today, Dan Rather released the following statement…

“Last week, amid increasing questions about the authenticity of documents used in support of a 60 MINUTES WEDNESDAY story about President Bush’s time in the Texas Air National Guard, CBS News vowed to re-examine the documents in question-and their source-vigorously. And we promised that we would let the American public know what this examination turned up, whatever the outcome. Now, after extensive additional interviews, I no longer have the confidence in these documents that would allow us to continue vouching for them journalistically. I find we have been misled on the key question of how our source for the documents came into possession of these papers. That, combined with some of the questions that have been raised in public and in the press, leads me to a point where-if I knew then what I know now-I would not have gone ahead with the story as it was aired, and I certainly would not have used the documents in question. But we did use the documents. We made a mistake in judgment, and for that I am sorry. It was an error that 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. Please know that nothing is more important to us than people’s trust in our ability and our commitment to report fairly and truthfully.”

Is this sufficient? Certainly the apology is unequivocal and direct, and Rather deserves credit for this. But it is missing a crucial element: a disavowal of the unethical journalistic principle that earlier, ill advised statements in connection with the Guard memos appeared to endorse, namely that it was somehow acceptable to use false evidence in order to raise legitimate and newsworthy issues. If this “principle” is really going to guide CBS’s and Rather’s news judgment in the future, then their efforts to regain the public’s trust are, and deserve to be, futile.

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