CBS News anchorman Dan Rather usually travels with a camera crew.
On his next visit to Capitol Hill, don’t be surprised to see him traveling with counsel.
Reacting to problems at CBS News over Rather’s 60 Minutes Wednesday broadcast of allegedly forged documents damaging to President Bush’s Vietnam-era military record, House Energy and Commerce Committee chairman Joe Barton (R-Texas) last week said he’s considering hearings to examine broadcast newsgathering methods and internal controls to prevent false reporting.
NO WITNESSES YET
Barton — who said any hearing would occur after the Nov. 2 presidential election — has not decided whether or not to haul Rather and other network-news big shots before his panel for the same grilling network executives received for faulty calls on election night in November 2000.
“I’m not going to tell you how we are going to do it, but it’s going to be fair and balanced,” Barton said last Tuesday in luncheon remarks to the Association of Maximum Service Television, a broadcast-engineering trade group.
Barton said he was concerned the problems at CBS News were indicative of a general decline in broadcast standards and practices that could result in a reduction of free-speech protections for the media.
“It’s just a legitimate concern that because the way things have evolved, I personally don’t see the same standards of authentication of what goes on the air that we had at one time and, to some extent, that we still have in the print media because of all the safeguards,” he added.
Barton recently rejected calls for an immediate probe of CBS News’s reporting on Bush’s military history 30 years ago, saying that he didn’t want to plunge into a divisive issue just weeks before the election. But he said a hearing after the election would be appropriate.
“I think the basic decision of the committee and the Congress to stay out of it was the right decision,” he added. “Having said that, once the election is over, there are some real issues there.”
A CBS spokesman declined to comment on Barton’s remarks. But Barton’s interest in probing TV-news standards was attacked by others as an attempt by government to intimidate the media.
“Congress must resist the temptation to sit in judgment of media performance precisely because public officials are armed with the coercive power of government,” said Adam Thierer, director of telecommunications studies at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank in Washington, D.C.
Barton’s panel oversees the broadcasting, cable and satellite industries and authorizes funding of the Federal Communications Commission, which regulates broadcast licensees.
If the Democrats regain power in the House, Barton would not have authority to call a hearing when the new Congress returns in January. He might be able to hold a hearing if Congress returns after the Nov. 2 election for a lame-duck session.
The controversy erupted when Rather reported on Bush’s National Guard service during the Sept. 8 broadcast of 60 Minutes.
Rather relied on memos that were quickly called forgeries by people knowledgeable about typefaces who posted their concerns on Internet Web logs, or blogs. They said the documents were not written on a 1970s typewriter but on a modern computer.
Rather strongly defended the broadcast for several days, but CBS News eventually acknowledged that it could not authenticate the records.
Rather and CBS News, thrown into a credibility crisis, apologized. Former U.S. Attorney General Dick Thornburgh and former Associated Press chief executive Louis Boccardi were named to head an investigation into what went wrong.
A LOOK AT METHODS
Barton indicated hearings would focus on reporting methods and safeguards to prevent dubious stories from reaching the air.
“How you guys do it is up to you, but it is a legitimate hearing for the people of this country, through their delegated representatives, which is the Congress of the United States, to see how you do it,” Barton said. “Does NBC do it differently than CBS? Does Fox [News Channel] do it differently? Does [Cable News Network]?”
Barton said he had no plans to “reinvent journalism ethics or whatever.”