“We’re not doing it for ratings,” said Sean McManus.
It was the afternoon of Friday, Sept. 25, and Mr. McManus, the president of CBS News and Sports, was on the phone with The Observer talking about an upcoming, multi-day initiative at CBS News, which will focus on the state of the war in Afghanistan.
For three straight days, beginning Monday, October 5, Katie Couric will essentially toss aside the typical format of the CBS Evening News and devote the bulk of each night’s minutes to explaining where America’s war in Afghanistan is headed eight years in.
“All the research shows that when you do stories on wars, normally, that doesn’t spike the ratings,” said Mr. McManus. “We just think it’s important, as a news organization, to do this.”
Not long ago, The Observer wrote about how, as the focus of the U.S. military operations overseas continues to shift from Iraq to Afghanistan, many top American foreign correspondents (from NBC’s Richard Engel to CNN’s Christiane Amanpour) were increasingly following their military sources back to America’s other war.
Now, CBS’s team of hard-charging war correspondents, led by the enthralling live wire Lara Logan, Terry McCarthy (new to the network after a successful run at ABC News), and seasoned national security correspondent David Martin will get some expanded real estate to explain everything from the state of the Taliban to the strategy behind the U.S. counterinsurgency plans to the likelihood of Pakistan’s’ nuclear weapons falling into the hands of terrorists.
Ms. McManus said that he and his colleagues first began conceiving Afghanistan: The Road Ahead toward the end of the summer. The other idea, at the time, was to do an extensive series on health care. In the end, Afghanistan won out.
But then in late August, Mr. McManus received a dreaded 5 a.m. phone call. It was bad news. Cami McCormick, a 47-year-old CBS News correspondent, had been seriously injured by a roadside bomb while traveling on assignment in Afghanistan. It was the second time since Mr. McManus took over as president of the news division in the fall of 2005 that one of his reporters had been badly injured in a war zone. Nearly three and a half years ago, Kimberly Dozier sustained life-threatening injuries from a car bomb while reporting in Iraq.
Did Mr. McManus consider scrapping the Afghanistan project?
“It affected our discussion in terms of where our reporters would potentially go,” said Mr. McManus. “But it didn’t affect the need or the desire to do the story.”
“We spend an enormous amount of time and resources on security,” he added. “It’s probably the most dangerous venue in the world for reporters right now. Although your decisions with respect to security and where correspondents go can be affected by a terrible accident, it doesn’t really change the desire of the people who want to cover the story for us.”
These are tough times for serious, global news organizations trying to cover multiple war zones on diminishing budgets. Like its competitors, CBS News has not been immune from the changes brought about by the advent of the Internet and the gloomy advertising market. This past January, we wrote about major cuts that were made to some of CBS’s longtime foreign bureaus, including in Moscow and Tel Aviv.
On Friday afternoon, Mr. McManus said that in the digital age, it doesn’t make sense anymore to have the same kind of fully staffed bureaus in locations around the world. That’s in part because of changes in technology that allow news organizations to mobilize troops quicker when a news story develops in a region—and, in part, due to the proliferation of video sources.
“You’re much better off having a larger infrastructure in London and moving people around,” said Mr. McManus.
In recent years, the big three networks have all been gradually dismantling their traditional foreign bureaus and testing out new models for covering breaking news events overseas. ABC News, for instance, has been particularly aggressive about deploying so-called one-man-band, or digital video, journalists to cover stories around the planet.
As for CBS, on Monday, executives announced that they were forming a partnership with the international news site GlobalPost, which will give the network access to another 70 correspondents in 50 countries around the world.
“In the early going, at least, GlobalPost reporters will provide information, not work on the air, with CBS using its reporters and anchors to flesh out coverage for broadcast,” David Carr recently reported in The New York Times. “CBS News suggested that the alliance with GlobalPost, in which the network will pay a monthly undisclosed fee to the site, represents an expansion of the news divisions’ efforts to cover the rest of the world.”
Not long ago, Mr. McManus sat on a panel at the Council on Foreign Relations alongside fellow TV news executives to talk, in part, about overseas news gathering. At one point during the discussion, according to Mr. McManus, David Westin, the president of ABC News, told a story about how their Paris bureau used to have a full-time chef and a well-stocked wine cellar. “In the ’70s and ’80s that was pretty nice,” said Mr. McManus. “Right now, you don’t do that sort of thing. We’ve all kind of adjusted the way we do business.”
“If you can save money by not having 15 people living in Paris, who aren’t being terribly well utilized, and you can take that money and put it towards your daily news gathering—that’s a much better use of your resources,” said Mr. McManus.
Somewhere along the way, deciding when and where to splurge on overseas enterprise reporting has become an important part of managing a broadcast news division. Picking your spots is crucial.
“Our resources are limited,” said Mr. McManus. “We don’t have as much money as we’d like to spend on foreign coverage. Having said that, if you look at the stories that have developed outside of this country, I can’t think of a major story we haven’t done a good job of covering.”
Afghanistan: The Road Ahead is not going to be inexpensive,” he added. “But that’s why you have a news division—to spend money on important stories.”
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