CBS News will launch a four-part investigative series this evening across two of its best-known programs and it has nothing to do with President Trump, the coronavirus pandemic, or the results of the 2020 election.
Norah O’Donnell spent a year and a half looking into how the U.S. military treats victims of sexual assault, and found what she calls a “consequential failure” to address the needs of service members who are traumatized and harassed as they try to fulfill their mission of defending the United States. “Tens of millions of dollars have been spent on this, and in the last decade, the reports have more than doubled, and yet, there have been fewer court martials,” says O’Donnell, in an interview. “Why is this happening and why aren’t the abusers and assaulters being held accountable?”
The series launches tonight on “The CBS Evening News,” with reports that the anchor estimates are approximately double the length of a traditional two-minute segment on the program. “CBS This Morning” will also carry some parts of the series, which will also have digital and social-media components. CBS News says the Department of Defense declined a request for an on-camera interview.
To put the story together, CBS News spoke with nearly two dozen survivors of sexual assault, families of suicide victims who were assaulted and military whistleblowers. The centerpiece of the project is likely to be on-the-record interviews between O’Donnell and four sexual assault survivors, who came to Washington, D.C., this summer and spoke on camera with 12 feet between them and the anchor. Persuading them to tell their stories, O’Donnell says, proved to be the toughest part of the project.
“They felt like they were being heard and listened to. Each and every one of them said that things got worse after they reported their assault,” says O’Donnell. “They felt ostracized and alone.”
The series has special meaning to O’Donnell, who in 2017 conducted a six-month investigation into sexual assault at the U.S. Air Force Academy — work that won an Emmy Award. Her father served in the military, and her sister does currently. “I revere and respect the U.S. military so much. I know the values the military espouses” are at odds with the findings in this series, she says.
If O’Donnell has any say in the matter — she is managing editor of the CBS evening newscast — viewers may start to see even more CBS journalism devoted to similar pursuits. President Donald Trump’s time in office has required an outsize amount of news resources devoted to his norm-breaking way of managing the White House. A Biden administration may not stir as much frenzy.
“There has been little focus on policy,” O’Donnell notes. “I want to make sure our reporters are well versed in different policy changes — climate change, social justice, taxes and debt issues. We really have to dig in. I do think there’s going to be a shift in the news coverage.”
No one is taking their eyes off of other stories, but some work is too significant not to highlight. “Even in the midst of a contested presidential election and a raging global pandemic, it’s so incredibly important to devote a lot of time to this” O’Donnell says.