Ververs begins role as editor today

CBS News has a complaints department.

Vaughn Ververs, media critic and former editor of National Journal’s Hotline blog, begins his role as Public Eye editor today, making him an arbiter of fairness at the news net as it works to rebuild its image and its ratings.

“We want to start a dialogue, a conversation between CBS News people and the public,” Ververs said during an interview at CBS’ broadcast center on a floor that houses its digital division, led by MarketWatch founder Larry Kramer.

Ververs’ forum will be a blog, which he expects to start soon after Labor Day. Idea is to respond to criticism leveled at CBS News, which reached a fever pitch last fall when the Wednesday edition of “60 Minutes” aired a flawed report on President Bush’s military service.

Since then, Dan Rather has stepped down from the anchor’s chair, Bob Schieffer has replaced him and the net is in the midst of a rethink of the “Evening News” that will bring a new format and new personalities to the evening newscast.

The hiring of an ombudsman is part of a longer-term strategy to restore trust and bring transparency to decision-making at the Eye.

“We’ve got to establish credibility for ourselves, and we do that by being open, honest and accurate, and that only happens over a period of time,” Ververs said.

Ververs will act very much like an ombudsman in that his blog won’t be edited and he can’t be fired. He plans to unravel stories from inception to finished product and publish the results.

The blog will add another voice to the cacophony of left- and right-wing blogs, newspapers and talkradio that police the media, and particularly CBS, for any instance of bias, real or perceived.

Significantly, Ververs will report –and answer — to digital boss Kramer, rather than to news division president Andrew Heyward.

“The news division can’t fire me no matter what they’re mad about,” Ververs said.

CBS had considered hiring an ombudsman before last fall’s National Guard story scandal, following the path of orgs that had been long dogged by accusations of bias, such as the New York Times and NPR.

Rather had been a target for those critics dating back to his televised showdown with Richard Nixon. So when cracks began to appear in his National Guard story, it confirmed for some a lot of long-held beliefs about CBS News.

Once blood hit the water, longtime critics such as Matthew Sheffield turned up the heat through his blog Ratherbiased.com.

Can “Public Eye” earn any cred in the blogosphere?

“If they can demonstrate they’re acting in good faith, I think the public will act accordingly, but if this is a smokescreen, the blogging community will see right through it,” Sheffield said.

With the “Evening News” a distant third in the ratings, CBS has little to lose by opening itself up to scrutiny.

Still, Ververs realizes conflict is an inevitable consequence of asking tough questions. “But I think the answers to those questions are usually innocuous,” he said. “There’s a lot of willingness (at CBS) to be cooperative in this process.”

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