Topic: Media

CBS, Clarke, and Conflicts
(3/23/2004)

I suppose this might be regarded as progress for CBS; finally it has an ethics mess on its hands that doesn’t involve a member of the Jackson family. Still, one is forced to conclude that the CBS/Viacom team is so ethically tone deaf that CBS’s vaunted journalistic integrity, or what’s left of it, is doomed.

Dick Clarkee, the Bush Administration’s former counter-terrorism advisor, has written a book perfectly timed to attract the maximum criticism to his former employers, provide the maximum fodder for media debate in an election year, and sell the maximum number of copies. Eager to assist was “60 Minutes,” and it heavily promoted its Lesley Stahl interview with Clarke, resulting in terrific ratings for CBS’s investigative news show and a high profile book launch for Clarke.

The problem? Clarke’s book, Against All Enemies, is being published by Free Press, a subsidiary of Simon and Schuster. Simon and Schuster is a division of Viacom. And, of course, so is CBS.

Thus the investigative reporting arm of CBS News has been transformed into a highly effective “infomercial” to promote a product that will create income for CBS’s parent company. The amazing thing is that CBS claims to see no impropriety in this at all. The show has “interviewed authors from virtually all the book publishing companies over its 36 seasons and is beholden to none of them,” was the reaction of a “60 Minutes” spokesman to questions about the conflict. Other media reporters were inclined to brush off the issue; for example, Pamela McClintock, reporting for Yahoo! News called the issue a “storyline” “apparently floated by the White House.”

Let’s remember that one the next time Eric Alterman denies that there is widespread media enmity to Republicans.

Ethics Scoreboard will now spell it out for CBS, Yahoo!, Ms. McClintock, and the apparent majority of Americans who don’t see the problem here:

For “60 Minutes” to provide publicity for Clarke’s book without revealing that its parent company profits from its sales is blatantly deceptive, unethical, and arrogant beyond belief. It is simply not possible that the network didn’t realize it had such an obligation; indeed, it mentioned the connection on its website. The omission on “60 Minutes” was intentional.

And, strangely, Lesley Stahl’s interview was a un-“60 Minutes”-like collection of softball questions. Why was Clarke not asked to disclose his financial incentives for writing the book? Why were’t his possible biases (job dissatisfaction; personal vendettas, cashing in) explored? Clarke should have had to explain why he thought it was appropriate to use accounts of private meetings he attended in a position of trust to undermine superiors now, when the 9/11 commission was holding hearings and a presidential election campaign is in full swing. If he was as concerned about the safety of the country as he now asserts, why didn’t he come forward a year ago, after his resignation, or while he was still on the job, as a whistle-blower? Why did he wait so long? Any of those questions would have illuminated Clarke’s credibility, and they all had the potential to make his book less attractive to buyers and less lucrative for Viacom.

Maybe, as the right’s talk squad would have it, these questions went unasked because “60 Minutes” and CBS have it in for President Bush. Maybe it is because “60 Minutes’ was pulling its punches to protect a Viacom cash cow. (Let us remember what CBS would like to forget: its infamous capitulation by killing the tale of the tobacco whistle-blower when law suits, and corporate assets, were threatened. Of course, it all worked out well for Russell CroweÂ…) Maybe the problem is that Lesley Stahl is just a lousy interviewer.

Whatever the real reason, her performance failed to either confirm Clarke’s credibility or dismantle it, and CBS’s conflict of interest should leave everyone wondering why.

This is no ordinary book-plugging outlet; this is “60 Minutes,” where they make their interviewees sweat and ask the tough questions. Let Bill Maher and Bill O’Reilly and the rest shamelessly promote books of theirs and others; that’s not the job of “60 Minutes,” or at least it wasn’t. CBS had an obligation to reveal the source of a potential bias in Clarke’s favor, Viacom’s financial interest in Clarke’s book. It is the opinion here that this conflict, even when revealed, makes any “60 Minutes” feature on Clarke’s book, regardless of how it was handled, suspect. But if the program was going to feature Clarke’s book, it had an absolute obligation to ask the author every tough question, so no reasonable person could harbor suspicions that CBS was paving the way for a Simon and Schuster product to hit the New York Times Best Seller list.

CBS and “60 Minutes” did neither. Viacom probably has its best seller, and the public is hardly up in arms. Nevertheless, this episode proves whatever shreds of journalistic ethics integrity CBS retained from the days of Murrow, Friendly and Cronkite have been tossed to the winds.

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