Guest column

CBS’ misadventure with President Bush’s National Guard service came to its predictable conclusion this week. A handful of staffers were either fired or asked to resign, while both outgoing anchor Dan Rather and CBS News prexy Andrew Heyward have thus far been spared the ax.

CBS’ punitive actions reflect the increasingly popular but regrettable journalistic practice of corporate buck-passing — resolving a media scandal by establishing new positions, and additional bureaucracy, to provide the oversight that those in positions of authority neglected to do.

Specifically, CBS said it would implement the investigative panel’s recommendation that the network install a senior vice president of standards and special projects, charged with “upholding and enforcing” the news divisions standards.

In short, CBS is creating a job to fulfill the duties that stewards of the news division should have executed, among them Heyward. According to the report, Heyward counseled caution regarding the National Guard story but didn’t bother to intervene.

If this sounds at all familiar, think back to the New York Times’ own eye-blackening episode with reporter Jayson Blair, which led, among other things, to the appointment of “public editor” Daniel Okrent, whose biweekly column has often been entertaining but at best uneven. As often as not, Okrent’s space seems to get sidetracked into wonkish minutia (Arts listings? Levels of identification on anonymous sources?) as opposed to larger issues surrounding bias or misleading coverag, sometimes rendering his watchdog role more niggling than enlightening.

In a broader sense, though, the entire public editor or ombudsman concept is perplexing. The exercise seemingly begins from the perspective that editors, producers and news division presidents can’t be counted upon to fulfill one of their most basic obligations — namely, to remain accountable to readers and viewers. As if shielded within an ivory tower, they must enlist a salaried outsider to fulfill the role, establishing a public connection that allows those annoying outside voices to be heard.

Yes, both CBS and the Times are vast enterprises, but should it really be necessary to seek out a third party, even if it’s employed by each respective organization, to gain a measure of satisfaction regarding complaints or ensure the reliability of the product?

CBS can breathe easy on one score. For all the hand wringing over this latest episode, much of it overheated by partisan political rhetoric, the history of such improprieties has been that the news operations recover.

From “Dateline NBC’s” car-rigging fiasco to Janet Cook’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post series that was later proven false to, more modestly, columnist Mike Barnicle’s plagiarism of a George Carlin routine, redemption is possible. Invariably, the healing process requires coming clean before rebuilding whatever trust has been squandered.

The media cycle has accelerated dramatically in the cable and Internet age, meaning CBS’ embarrassment is that much closer to becoming yesterday’s news. With Monday’s report, the network has taken at least a partial step along that path.

Yet now that the network has provided a window into where this particular story went wrong, maybe the key to preventing a recurrence is not to waste time dreaming up new safeguards. Instead, how about an old-fashioned remedy – say, if someone calls to complain, start by answering the phone.

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