WASHINGTON — Up to this point I have refrained from commenting on the whole CBS controversy. Years ago, when I was the political reporter and weekend anchor at the CBS affiliate in Milwaukee, the CBS news team was regarded as the finest in the nation. When Walter Cronkite told us that this is the way it was, half the nation believed it. I recall when a young Dan Rather, then up and coming, called from his hotel room after watching one our newscasts just to say he thought we had done an excellent job. The whole newsroom glowed for about a week. CBS had a certain integrity to it. It was the network of Edward R. Morrow, after all. I recall our program director Baylen Smith commenting on a CBS documentary on hunger in America explaining to us that now television had real power in America. We could move people on issues. We took our cue from CBS. When they did a documentary or an in-depth feature, we followed up on the local level seeing if we could find in Milwaukee what was documented about New York or Baltimore or Washington.
One of my proudest moments came when I got to do a live feature on the “CBS Evening News” with Walter Cronkite. We called every relative we could think of. When my great moment came, Cronkite said “and now reporter Paul ‘Way-Rich’ has the story from Milwaukee.” (For those of you who don’t know, my name is pronounced like “Y-Rick.”) The CBS producer in New York was nice enough to call me to apologize. “We couldn’t get the correct pronunciation through the old man’s head. Once he saw the spelling of your name, we couldn’t convince him otherwise,” the producer told me. Oh, well. The thought of Walter Cronkite arguing over the pronunciation of my name was still heady enough stuff. I had better luck with the “CBS Morning News.” Believe it or not, back then (we’re talking about the mid 1960s) the “CBS Morning News” was actually competitive with the “Today” show. They never surpassed the “Today” show, mind you, and when ABC launched their revised morning show, CBS dropped to third place from whence it has never recovered.
What does all of this have to do with the CBS use of clearly forged documents? The point is simply this. Even though, like all national news organizations at the time, CBS leaned left, still it did have standards. If you were a CBS affiliate, you were expected to live up to those standards. Some 40 years ago it was inconceivable that such a rush to judgment would have occurred. We were given lectures about the necessity of always having more than one source for a story. We were told of the failsafe system CBS had built into its news operation to be sure that stories could be checked and re-checked. As CBS affiliates we were expected to do the same.
I well recall getting into trouble because I went with a story from a single source. I had what we used to call a scoop and I was so anxious to get it on, I didn’t check on its reliability. One of the people named in the story complained bitterly to the general manager of the station, who subsequently was on my back. I was saved when the story turned out to be true. But I have no doubt if the story had turned out to be false I would have been fired. There was accountability back then. That same Baylen Smith told us a story about some firings that had taken place in New York because stories were sloppily done. The message to us in the newsroom was unmistakable: He would hate to have to fire us for the same reason. Yes, back then you were proud to be associated with the CBS name.
WHAT ABOUT NOW? How the mighty have fallen. As Dan Rather assumed more and more power over the CBS Evening News, there were less and less controls over news programming. Back in 1988, Rather did a documentary in which he purported to follow the lives of half dozen military guys who had served in Vietnam. They told their stories of have committed terrible atrocities in Vietnam (just like the Winter Soldier hearing conducted by John Kerry in the early 1970s) and then supposedly documented all of their troubles back in the USA. The only problem was none of it was true. Some had not been to Vietnam at all. Others were not where they claimed to be. The whole story was an elaborate hoax. Did Rather know then that he had been fed a bill of goods? Did he again rush to judgment without checking the issue out? When confronted on the issue, CBS said, “We stand by our story.” In 1988 they could get by with that and make it stick. There was very little talk radio. There was no Fox News. There was no Internet. There were no bloggers.
Rather got caught in this current day hoax by a group of bloggers who put pieces of the puzzle together and who exposed this hoax for what it was. CBS tried the same thing. “We stand by our story.” It didn’t work. Rather has been forced into a half-hearted apology, which strikes me as an apology for getting caught. CBS itself had to appoint former Attorney General Dick Thornburgh to head an investigation to determine just what happened. We don’t need such an investigation. The bloggers could tell CBS what happened if they really wanted to know. As to how the forged material made it onto CBS Sixty Minutes II, it was Rather who has an agenda, and who saw the opportunity to damage President Bush.
Now many of my conservative colleagues are calling for Rather to resign. I am not one of them. I want Rather to stay. I hope in his arrogance he continues to believe, as he told the Chicago Tribune on the day after his “apology,” he still thinks the documents might be authentic. The so-called mainstream media, including and especially the “CBS Evening News,” are in a state of decline. Every single rating book which comes out shows less people watching their newscasts and more people watching cable, especially Fox News. And then there are those people, now considerable in number, who no longer watch any television news. They have computers. They have their favorite web sites such as NewsMax.com and a host of other conservative sites such as National Review Online. They also surf the newspapers around the country. They can pick and choose the stories and columns they want. They won’t have a whole paper shoved down their throats.
IT IS TRULY A NEW WORLD out there. One that I never thought I would live to see. I got tears in my eyes watching Vice President Spiro Agnew attack the major media at a media meeting in Des Moines, Iowa, in 1969. I still think his forced resignation was payback time. Anyway, I never ever thought I would see the mighty networks having to fight to survive. Some analysts are suggesting by the end of this decade there may not be the worldwide network facilities as we know them today. Newspapers for the most part are also in a steep decline. Many won’t survive. Others may survive just online.
This is the reason that the liberals are so anxious to shut down talk radio. This is why they curse Fox News and are trying to figure out a scheme to put them out of business. This is why the liberals are so anxious to tax and regulate the Internet. These are the gasps of a dying industry. Rather resign? Heck no. He should stay there so he can go down with the ship.
Some day, one of my grandchildren, looking at my curriculum vitae will ask, “Grandpa? What is CBS. It says here you once worked for an affiliate.” I’ll reply: “It’s a long story. But it doesn’t matter. They don’t exist anymore. Remind me to have that stricken from my C.V.” After all, when you no longer are proud of the affiliation, why mention it?