Topic: Media

More Random Journalistic Ethics at CBS

The Columbia Broadcasting System’s concept of journalistic ethics mutates faster than a virus in a Robin Cook medical thriller. At what point will viewers simply throw up their hands at the unethical, unprofessional, patently biased and irresponsible conduct of the CBS’s news division and conclude that they might as well get their news from the Cartoon Network?

Here’s the latest U-turn in what CBS regards as responsible news reporting. According to multiple published sources, the New York Times and “60 Minutes” were collaborating on a story revisiting the missing explosives cache in Iraq, first reported by NBC over a year ago. Before the Times pre-empted its “partner’ (the old saying about there being no honor among thieves also seems to apply to media organs) and headlined the story as a sensational “scoop,” “60 Minutes” was planning on running it forty eight hours before election eve. At the risk of stating the obvious, here’s what was ethically wrong with that plan:

  • As discussed elsewhere on the Scoreboard, this very same program buried a segment impliedly critical of the Bush administration on the grounds that by running such a piece so close to November 2, the network would risk accusations of bias and trying to influence the election. That story, on forged documents related to US claims that Iraq had sought to but nuclear materials from Niger, was a resuscitation of old news, just like the weapons cache story. You just can’t get closer to the election than 7 PM EST on November 2, yet CBs saw no impropriety in running the weapons cache piece on election eve. What’s the difference? The difference is that the shelved story involved forged documents, which is (ahem) a sore point for Dan Rather and Co. The “60 Minutes” claim of ethical sensitivity was balderdash. The program would love to influence the election, and with the weapons cache story, was determined to try. CBS lied about its motives in shelving the first piece, then planned on violating the very principle it was claiming to uphold. The crowning irony? The Niger story was more newsworthy.

  • The story itself, if the New York Times version is to be any guide, was slanted and misleading. Although the thrust of the Times report was that the US failed to prevent the disappearance of a massive stockpile of explosives, thus implicating the Bush administration’s prosecution of the Iraq campaign, it now appears that this is an incomplete and inaccurate interpretation of information that is, in turn, old, complicated, disputed, conflicting and still developing. There is evidence that the explosives may well have vanished before the US arrived in Iraq. There are indications that the Iraqis grossly over-stated the amount of missing explosives. The Pentagon first stated that most of the explosives in the cache were removed before the American arrived, then located an officer who says that his forces moved all but a small amount of the material away from the site The fact is that even after a week of investigation and heated charges, nobody can yet say with certainty what happened to how much explosive material when. Whatever the final determination (if there is one), most media critics have concluded that the Times story was overwrought, over-played and unbalanced. But its equivalent would have been launched into the final hours of a dead-heat campaign with inadequate time to clarify or correct it, if CBS got its way.

So CBS was foiled. Still, its serial violations of ethical standards of fairness, accuracy and impartiality have progressed from unacceptable to incredible. The network needs to clean house at the news division, put “60 Minutes” out of its senile misery and start from scratch. At this point, there really is no other alternative.

What about the New York Times? Since Howell Raines took charge, the Gray Lady has made little pretense of being anything other than a left-leaning newspaper in its political coverage, and Raines’ departure did not alter that orientation. Still, the Times remains the pre-eminent American daily, and its stories, ill-considered or not, have national impact.

The irresponsibility inherent in the Times reporting of the weapons cache story can be seen in the way it has already distorted the presidential campaign during the crucial final week. Sensing a silver bullet, John Kerry’s tacticians pounced on the Times report and had their candidate use it as unequivocal proof of the Bush administration’s incompetence. As subsequent examination of the Times‘ slant puts that interpretation more in question, it is very possible that the story has led Kerry into a dead end when every second counts. Worse, it may raise the specter of collusion between the mainstream media and the Democrats to ambush the GOP, a strategy undecided voters may resent. The story may also raise enough questions to turn the tide against Bush. Whatever its impact, the weapons cache tale is too murky to warrant such impact on the election. If it becomes the issue that tips the precariously balanced electoral scales one way or the other, we will have had our nation’s choice of leadership distorted by journalistic arrogance and disregard for ethical standards.

As a footnote, the Scoreboard wants it made clear that the Kerry campaign deserves no criticism for using the Times story as ammunition in its final push for victory. This is a hard-fought battle, and if the Times characterization of the facts were accurate, it would be the basis for a legitimate attack. And a story printed in the New York Times, that icon of American journalism, should be accurate; why shouldn’t the Democrats be able to rely on it? Both parties, and the American public, are the potential victims in this fiasco.

[The Ethics Scoreboard is not equipped to give thorough details on the missing explosives. On-line news sources are displaying even more partisan bias on this issue than usual, but The Washington Post ( is a good place to start if you are seeking a balanced account.]

Related Commentary:


Join the discussion about this article


Business & Commercial
Sports & Entertainment
Government & Politics
Science & Technology
Professions & Institutions

The Ethics Scoreboard, ProEthics, Ltd., 2707 Westminster Place, Alexandria, VA 22305
Telephone: 703-548-5229    E-mail: ProEthics President

© 2007 Jack Marshall & ProEthics, Ltd     Disclaimers, Permissions & Legal Stuff    Content & Corrections Policy