Collapse of Network News

Respect for the truth is not marked by always being accurate, but by a perpetual willingness, even an eagerness, to correct past errors. It has become clear to everyone whose eyes have not been crusted shut by partisan pinkeye, that the documents CBS offered as evidence that National Guard officers were pressured to sugar coat then Lt. George W. Bush’s records and that Bush disobeyed a direct order to report for a physical, were forgeries. There are a number of technical issues with regard to font and spacing that indicate that the papers were almost certainly not produced by the common typewriters used by the National Guard at the time. Further, the documents mentioned pressure by General Staudt on behalf of the young lieutenant. Other records now show that the general had retired more than a year earlier than the date of the memo. CBS claims they were working on the story for five years. It took less than five days to undermine the evidentiary foundation of CBS’s report.

If we presume no deliberate maliciousness, what becomes evident, even from this distance, is that reporters and producers at CBS believed or wanted to believe these negative Bush stories so much that they lost their ordinary journalistic skepticism. Now it could be argued that there is not a sufficient ideological diversity on the staff of CBS News that could have acted as a check to this unintentional partisan enthusiasm. Nonetheless, it is extremely unlikely that anyone at CBS consciously decided to use documents they knew were forged.

CBS’s gravest error was not the initial mistake of makingpolitically explosive accusations based on forged documents less than two months from an election, but its intransigence to take seriously legitimate questions by known document experts. Given the initial questions about the authenticity of documents, CBS should have been the first to launch an independent assessment of the documents and make the earliest generation of the documents available to other independent news organizations. Stonewalling against criticism does convey openness to truth.

The wife and son of Lt. Col. Jerry Killian, the purported author of the memos, said that Killian would not have written such documents and that the statements in the documents were inconsistent with opinions the late Lt. Col. voiced to both his wife and son. Now it is possible that CBS could have still judged the documents authentic, but they did have a journalistic responsibility to inform viewers that the some people close to Lt. Col. Killian doubted the documents. The experts consulted by CBS also had serious doubts about the documents, yet CBS did not convey this uncertainty to the viewers.

Since we assumme the documents came from an anonymous source, CBS also had the positive ethical obligation to help the viewer assess the credibility of the documents’ source. While not specifically naming the source of the document, they might have provided a general identification. Were the documents provided by a National Guard colleague of Lt. Col. Killian? Where they provided by a person with either a political or personal motivation to harm the Bush campaign? Where they provided by someone who supports Bush and was releasing the documents reluctantly out of an obligation to provide important information to the public? Having not met these rather customary responsibilities, CBS appears either incompetent or highly partisan.

The case for the partisanship of CBS is further buttressed by the book, Stolen Valor: How the Vietnam Generation Was Robbed of its Heroes and its History by B. G. Burkett Glenna Whitley. In June 1988, Dan Rather and CBS aired The Wall Within. The documentary interviewed half a dozen veterans who had apparently been traumatized by the atrocities they performed or the personal losses they sustained in Vietnam. Burkett and Whitley filed Freedom of Information Ac requests for the records of the veterans questioned and found that their stories did not check out. One veteran never saw combat, while another spent his time in a stockade for being AWOL. CBS still stands by this story despite the contrary documentary evidence uncovered by the routine Freedom of Information requests CBS itself should have pursued.

Similar lapses and the hubris they represent have over the years whittled away at the credibility and viewership of the major three networks. According to, “The three nightly newscasts have seen ratings decline by 34 percent in the past decade, nearly 44 percent since 1980, and 59 percent from their peak in 1969.” CBS’s drop has been the most precipitous. Cable news networks and the Internet have offered different sources of news and information. The perceived alternative to liberally-slanted news organizations, Fox News, now dominates the Cable news networks, surpassing MSNBC and CNN in viewership. With regard to the recent incident with forged documents, bloggers on the Internet broke the story, not the network news, not cable news. The collapse of network news has been accompanied by, and perhaps hastened by the rise of alternative information sources.

However, there is a down side to this network news collapse. If news sources become too fragmented and too connected to particular viewpoints, the population does not have a common framework within which to conduct reasoned debate. This can create a “Tower of Intellectual Babel,” within which there is shouting and posturing, but precious little communication and dialogue. We can only hope that the information free market will drive viewer towards those sources that effectively vet for accuracy and truth.

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