Media Manipulation

It looked like the yin and yang of media bias stories this week. First, USA Today revealed that conservative commentator Armstrong Williams had accepted money from the U.S. Department of Education to promote the administration’s “No Child Left Behind” law, without revealing that relationship when he discussed the bill on air or in print. Then CBS ousted four employees for their role in preparing and airing a false story about President Bush’s 1970s-era National Guard service. The CBS piece, with Dan Rather reporting, aired on “60 Minutes Wednesday” during the presidential election last fall and involved suspect documents that later turned out to have been probable forgeries. So does this prove that both the right and the left engage in media manipulation — a sort of everybody-does-it defense? Not really. In fact, the two stories not only illustrate different problems, but the parties involved should be held to different standards because of the dissimilar roles they play. I’m not going to make excuses for Armstrong Williams. Indeed, he isn’t making them himself. In his most recent column, Williams wrote, “In 2003, I agreed to run a paid ad on my syndicated television show, promoting the Department of Education’s ‘No Child Left Behind’ Act. I subsequently used my column space to support that legislation. This represents an obvious conflict of interests.” A pretty good general rule of thumb is, if you’re being paid by someone to advocate a particular point of view — even if it’s one you happen to hold independently — you owe it to your audience to let them know. But as embarrassing as Williams’ lapse in judgment might be, his sins were minor compared to those of CBS News. We expect pundits to be biased — opinion is their stock in trade. Columnists are paid to state their opinions; reporters are paid not to reveal them. Reporters deal in facts; and the collection and reporting of those facts are supposed to be apolitical, impartial and unbiased. A CBS-appointed panel investigating the controversial “60 Minutes Wednesday” segment concluded that everyone involved with the piece failed to uphold journalistic standards. As a result, CBS asked three high-level executives to resign and fired the producer of the segment. But CBS didn’t go far enough. The two-member, independent panel — former U.S. Attorney General Richard Thornburgh and former Associated Press President Louis Boccardi, both appointed by CBS — said they could not find evidence to prove political bias. But even the panel acknowledged “that on such a politically charged story, coming in the midst of a presidential campaign in which military service records had become an issue, there was a need for meticulous care to avoid any suggestion of an agenda at work.” The panel went on to note that those involved with the story failed to exercise “the appropriate level of care to avoid the appearance of political motivation,” attributing their actions to “zeal” to be first with an important story. Nonsense. Can you imagine Dan Rather going on the air just weeks before the election with documents supplied by the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth alleging John Kerry disobeyed a direct order by his military commander, no matter who else was ready to run with the story? The zeal to get the anti-Bush story on the air had little to do with network competition and everything to do with politics. It’s good that CBS fired Mary Mapes, the woman who produced the segment, and forced the resignation of three executives who should have questioned her more closely about her sources. But leaving Dan Rather in place at “60 Minutes” and delaying his exit as network news anchor until March is a travesty. Armstrong Williams’ bad judgment cost him his syndicated column. Rather’s disgraceful role in the phony Bush National Guard story should have cost him his job immediately. Now that would go some way to restoring balance in the media universe, a little yang of just deserts to balance the yin of media bias.