“I think the timing is ironic,” said Mr. Hawkins by phone from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. “Just as the story is heating up again, CBS is cutting back on one of its most important and last remaining bureaus.”
Paul Friedman, a senior vice president for CBS News, said that sizable overseas bureaus are in many cases a vestige of a bygone age, when getting in and out of foreign countries such as Russia or Lebanon or Israel could take weeks due to travel limitations and visa hold-ups. He said that that was no longer the case.
“The old model no longer applies,” said Mr. Friedman. “You do not need a massive infrastructure, as long as you can mobilize people quickly when the story develops.”
“Look at our coverage this week,” he said. “We’re working with the new model, essentially. I’ll put our coverage up against anyone’s coverage.”
But what about the value a correspondent gains by living in a region, developing contacts and sources and a feel for the streets? Mr. Friedman said that was a concern. “But does it have to be a highly paid correspondent who will get on the air, once a year?” said Mr. Friedman. “Or can it be a local journalist who provides you with the same kind of understanding and, in many cases, better sources because they’re local?”
Mr. Friedman said that in the case of the network’s coverage of Israel, Tel Aviv bureau chief Gaby Silon was more than capable of filling that role.
Sources tell The Observer that while Tel Aviv was never a gigantic bureau, it had a reputation of being highly functional and well connected in Israel. Bob Simon, arguably America’s most influential correspondent in the Middle East over the past 30 years, did his first major work in the region as a correspondent for CBS News based in Tel Aviv from 1977 to 1981.
Several former CBS News veterans, contacted by The Observer, lamented the layoffs. Most saw the latest downsizing as further evidence that the network has ceded international news gathering to the cable news networks.
“It’s just sad,” said one former CBS News employee. “This was the greatest broadcast journalism institution on the planet at one point in time. Now it’s one of the weakest ones when it comes to globally competitive news organizations. They continue to take away assets that are important.
“I think it’s almost unthinkable not to have a major presence in Tel Aviv right now,” the source added. “It’s not very forward-thinking. Everything is going to change in the region in the next couple of years.”
According to various news accounts, in the mid-’80s, CBS News maintained more than 20 overseas bureaus. In addition to downsizing its staff in Tel Aviv, CBS News recently laid off a number of employees in its Moscow bureau. At the same time, Allen Pizzey, the network’s longtime, celebrated foreign correspondent (most recently based in Rome), also worked out a mutual agreement with executives to reduce his role at CBS News.
“Any downsizing in foreign bureaus of course impedes the news-gathering process, and as a lifelong foreign correspondent I lament it,” Mr. Pizzey wrote to The Observer recently.“While economics unfortunately dictate that cuts have to be made in any industry you’d care to name these days,” he added, “it seems to me that there comes a point for news organizations when saving money by reducing the staff who gather and put out the product is a bit like a car manufacturer saving money by not putting in transmissions.
“I don’t think CBS or any other news organization currently caught up in the cost-cutting bind has reached that point yet,” he wrote. “Readers, listeners and viewers will judge whether any do so in the future.”
After the latest round of cuts, the network is left with two major overseas bureaus: one in London and one in Tokyo. Former newsroom staffers speculated that CBS will have to rely increasingly on APTN (Associated Press Television News) footage in order to keep covering the Middle East.
Mr. Friedman said that all of the networks are currently rethinking where to spend resources; these days, NBC News regularly teams up with ITN; ABC News works with the BBC; and CBS News occasionally makes use of correspondents from Sky TV. (According to a spokesperson, ABC news currently has eight employees working in Jerusalem and Gaza.)
“The other new reality of life is that all around the world now, there is video from so many sources,” said Mr. Friedman. “It’s no longer necessary to have your own staff cameraman in 14 cities.”