Sunday, January 16, 2005

Memogate: Some Lessons and a Proposal

Now that the dust has settled somewhat, I think it makes sense to take a look back at Memogate and see what instruction it might give us. After all the gloating, not much good will have been done if we don't learn the lessons before us. Here's what I see:
  1. Rather and Heyward won't go unless the rank-and-file demand it. Despite all the conservative harping about the NY Times, the grunt workers there did not shirk their duties. When given the opportunity to express their outrage over the coddling given to serial liar and cocaine addict Jayson Blair, they did so vociferously, setting off a chain reaction that went straight to the top. Only a similar uprising from the bottom up will rid CBS of those ultimately most responsible for this shameful episode.
  2. Conservatives are not immune from the 'wishful thinking' scenario. The one factor most responsible for Memogate was the belief of CBS News personnel that the story was true. Probably unconsciously, this lowered their own b.s. detectors, and allowed the shoddy work that led to their downfall. Now take the previous two sentences and insert Bush administration employees for CBS News personnel, and the WMD intelligence fiasco for Memogate. I don't see the difference, do you?
  3. The greatest guarantor of journalistic integrity is vigorous fact-checking. Had anyone put the slightest effort into following up on Memogate or the stories Jayson Blair wrote in his apartment during his binges, none of those stories would have seen the light of day, and those involved would have been reprimanded or fired before the reputation of the organization was damaged. Knowing that you will be caught if you lie is the strongest incentive not to do so; shame is not an emotion any of us enjoy.
  4. The cover-up is worse than the crime. This should be known as the 'Watergate Moral': if you ARE caught lying, better to 'fess up and throw yourself on the mercy of the court than to compound things by denying the obvious. (What do you remember most about Monicagate? Is it Bill Clinton looking you in the eye and shamelessly stating: ' Period."?)
If you put yourself in the shoes of the folks at CBS, these must be pretty grim times. Obviously, work has to be done to restore the reputation of a justifiably proud news organization. (Firing Rather and Heyward would be a great start). So here's a proposal. It's risky, innovative, somewhat utopian, and almost a guaranteed money-loser - but it would shake up the world of television news forever.

I propose the first truly interactive news station. CBS should purchase some struggling cable station, or start a new one (this would have to a cable operation for the interactive part to work). I'm not talking about 'CNN on Demand', where the viewer just controls the time existing programs are watched. I'm talking about a combination of Headline News, Blogs, and the best of the Internet.

Here's the pitch: the almost fatal weakness of existing news programs is their brevity. Even if a reporter is inclined to be truly fair and balanced, segments as they exist just aren't lengthy enough to explore the issues in depth. Balanced against that is the need for brevity to capture a wide audience. A two-hour special on the arcana of Social Security reform would no doubt set a record for the lowest-rated broadcast in history. The solution: brevity for all, and depth for those that want it.

My dream station would look something like the existing half-hour news shows, with an anchor introducing short, one to two minute news summaries. On screen, though, would be various highlighted areas that the viewer could choose with the remote, such as: View Interviews, Supporting Documents, Pro and Con, The Reaction Elsewhere, Blogging Time.

Obviously, this would be a major technological, operational, and editorial challenge. It would also be a sensation. I predict such a station would have abysmal initial ratings, but incredible influence, and gradually, the door to truly interactive television and a model for the future of the Mainstream Media would emerge. Only a true visionary would be foolish enough to embark on such a course. Thank God we live in a world where such people exist.

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