CBS News Report A Prototype For Journo-Purges

The new report on 60 Minutes Wednesday’s use of shaky documents dwarfs, in volume at least, the journalistic investigations that have come before. In 2003, the report of The New York Times’ Siegal Committee on the Jayson Blair affair checked in at 57 pages. In 2004, USA Today’s public version of its Jack Kelley report (withsections redacted) ran 28 pages.

On Tuesday, by comparison, newsroom laser printers had to groan through 224 pages of the CBS review panel’s findings, not counting the title sheet and nine other pages of front matter. The table of contents alone takes up six pages (” … Format of the Killian Signature Block … 146 …. Abbreviation of ‘Texas Air National Guard’ … 147″). Policing the journalistic profession is heavier and heavier work.

But then the CBS investigators had a bigger job than their predecessors.

When Al Siegal, now Times standards editor, convened his namesake committee in May 2003, “we had already printed the famous four pages in the paper,” he said. The report itself was something of a mop-up operation-even more so after executive editor Howell Raines and managing editor Gerald Boyd resigned in June, while the committee was still at work.

The embattled 60 Minutes Wednesday staff, on the other hand, hung in till the report came out-at which point CBS chief Leslie Moonves started oiling up the guillotine. If you include the pending retirement of Dan Rather, the furor over anachronistic fonts has separated five employees from the network-more than were done in by either the Blair or the Kelley affairs.

And over what? The drama about the documents CBS used in its story about President Bush’s Vietnam-era National Guard career shed no new light, either way, on the subject of the broadcast. “The Bush military service story is what it is,” said Walter Robinson of the Boston Globe, who quietly broke front-page story after front-page story about the topic. “He did not fulfill his military commitment. There’s no doubt about that.”

But once people started arguing about kerning, Mr. Robinson said, “it’s like the story went away.”

The crisis at CBS became the story instead. This week’s report, Mr. Robinson noted, had dominated the front pages he’d seen-a bit of industry parochialism, he observed, that reminded him of the headline in the old joke about the Globe: “Hub Man Dies in New York Nuclear Blast.”

The investigation itself acknowledged how things had ballooned. “[I]f Sixty Minutes Wednesday and CBS News had simply acknowledged the issues raised and told its viewers promptly that it would seek to reverify what 60 Minutes Wednesday had reported and would correct and apologize if it found anything wrong, the Panel would not be writing this Report,” the panel notes on page 151 of the report.

Or CBS News president Andrew Heyward could have dismissed the same four people two months ago that were dismissed by Mr. Moonves on Tuesday. That might have relieved Mr. Heyward of his present scrutiny by those who wonder why he should survive where Mr. Raines and USA Today editor Karen Jurgenson could not.

Then again, it might not have. The investigative report appears to be becoming a mandatory ritual for big-time organizations facing big-time screw-ups. “God, I hope not,” said Mr. Siegal. “I hope not.”

It’s not enough to purge; responsible outlets now follow up with a public endoscopy. The secret dealings of reporters, the off-the-record agreements and manipulation of sources, are now material for after-the-fact review. Any writer (or editor) who’s shopped for a cooperative expert to fill out a story might shudder at the account, in humiliating detail, of how the 60 Minutes Wednesday crew tried to cobble together semi-promising points from assorted document specialists into something that could pass for proof.

This is the new standard of behavior: “If you’re doing anything you wouldn’t be willing to stand up and talk about outside, you shouldn’t be doing it,” Mr. Siegal said.

“Everything has changed,” he continued. And yes, the bloggers can take a bow. In the past, Mr. Siegal said, an errant newspaper might draw a stern Columbia Journalism Review article in a month or so. “You didn’t then have real-time press criticism …. An editor who fired somebody was assumed to have done what was necessary.”

At the moment, even the C.E.O. who fires somebody isn’t in the clear. The CBS report is wary of judging questions of fact: It shrugs off, for instance, the job of choosing between he-said/she-said accounts of whether or not 60 Minutes Wednesday executive producer Josh Howard gave permission for segment producer Mary Mapes to introduce retired National Guard Lt. Col. Bill Burkett, who supplied the documents, to John Kerry’s Presidential campaign. (Mr. Moonves asked both to resign.)

Even so, there’s plenty in the bulk of the report that suggests the buck could have stopped somewhere higher up than it did. Mr. Moonves condemned Mr. Howard and his deputy, Mary Murphy-not for pushing iffy evidence, but simply for being in charge when the iffy evidence was being pushed.

So what about the executives who were in charge of the people in charge? According to the report, Mr. Heyward “told the Panel that Rather said he had not ‘been involved in this much checking on a story since Watergate.'”

If the story, unveiled in the thick of a Presidential race, required Watergate-level scrutiny, then where was CBS News? Either the larger news division really was involved in pushing the story onto the air-or it should have been.

Material like that makes these heady times for second-guessers. And it’s The Times, of all places, that helped set the current standard of scrutiny. Is this the same paper that in the early 70’s helped smother the watchdog National News Council in its whelping box?

“Well, we got traumatized into changing direction,” Mr. Siegal said. And bringing in outside investigators, against the paper’s traditional instincts, helped. “They gave the recommendations a heft that an inside committee couldn’t have done.”

Thus, last year, when CBS picked its two-member panel, it chose retired A.P. head Louis Boccardi-a Siegal Committee veteran. “[That’s] where CBS got the idea, I like to think ,” Mr. Siegal said.

The network built on the Times model by bringing in the law firm of Kirkpatrick and Lockhart Nicholson Graham as counsel, to help wrangle the paperwork. Mr. Siegal confessed his envy of the move. “Four hands are better than two, and six are better than four,” he said.

Some of the magazines that Sarah Jewler worked on are gone, their staffs dispersed. They seemed to reunite in memory last week, when the managing editor of New York, Manhattan, inc. and The Village Voice, a vibrant, much-loved, indomitable blonde, died last week at 56.

“Interestingly, Sarah’s job was to be a managing editor, but I didn’t value her most for her ability to make the trains run on time,” said Caroline Miller. The former editor in chief of New York magazine was recalling Jewler, who had served for 10 years as the magazine’s managing editor. “Her role there, which was different from her title, was to be an ally and acute listener and sympathetic ear.

“Everyone in the media knows how important complaining is in a newsroom, and Sarah’s office was sort of the department of complaints. It’s where you went and talked about things,” said Ms. Miller. “It was important, particularly in a place that had so much drama and tension. She was a combination of tart, direct, skeptical, sarcastic and sympathetic, and essentially upbeat. We used to say that New York magazine was always fun, even when it wasn’t. We could laugh about what was going on, even as it was going on.”

According to her husband, Jay Kennedy, Jewler died from complications of a rare blood disorder she had quietly dealt with for many years. During that time, those who toiled with her in the New York media bubble she loved came to know her as a tough, funny and classy woman.

“You could always turn everything over to her!” Clay Felker said, remembering her from an earlier time, when the two worked together at Manhattan, inc.

“I used to ask her, before we closed each issue, what she thought about it and if she had read all the stories,” Mr. Felker said. “She was remarkably insightful about the stories, what their strengths and weaknesses were, and I always made it a point to find out what she thought. She was so perceptive.”

“The first thing I did when I got my Village Voice job was call over to Manhattan, inc. to see if she was available. I don’t think I could have run the Voice without her,” said Jonathan Z. Larsen, who spent five years as editor in chief of the Voice to Jewler’s managing editor. “Sarah could be very tough, but she had such a pleasant personality, and a smiling face and good affect, that she could pull it off. She took the whole weight off all the editors who worked with her, because you knew absolutely that things were taken care of.”

“I met her at the very beginning of 1994, and I needed to hire a managing editor,” said Kurt Andersen. It was he who brought her to New York magazine when he became editor in chief. “I immediately fell in love and hired her.

“She wasn’t just a logistician,” Mr. Andersen continued. “She was into the journalism and what we were doing. I trusted her completely and implicitly. She was the still point in my day and week, where I could close the door and say, ‘What do we do about this?'”

Jane Amsterdam, who was the editor of Manhattan, inc. and worked with Jewler there, said: “She was just fabulous. I think Sarah was one of those people who treated everyone like a friend.”

Maer Roshan, now the editor in chief of Radar, recalled being slightly intimidated by Jewler when he interviewed with her for a senior editing job at New York, but over the months he and Jewler became close friends.

“For a while, New York magazine was known as the place with cute girl assistants,” Mr. Roshan said. “She said, ‘We need to fix this place up and get some cute boys in here,’ which I was a big supporter of.

“She was so much fun to talk to,” Mr. Roshan continued. “She was not easily toyed with and was very single-minded in her determination to get what she wanted done. That’s the part some people got run over by. But I always thought, if you made Sarah laugh, it was a good way to work with her.”

-Sheelah Kolhatkar