Reacting to problems at CBS News over the broadcast of allegedly forged documents damaging to President Bush’s military record, House Energy and Commerce Committee chairman Joe Barton (R-Texas) is considering hearings that would examine broadcast newsgathering methods and internal controls to prevent false reporting.
Barton -- who said any hearing would occur after the Nov. 2 presidential election -- has not decided whether to haul news executives from CBS and other news networks before his panel for the same grilling they 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 in luncheon remarks to the Association of Maximum Service Television, a broadcast-engineering trade group.
Barton said he was concerned that the problems at CBS News were representative of a decline in broadcast standards and practices that could result in a reduction of free-speech protections of 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’ reporting on Bush’s military history, 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.
Barton’s panel oversees the broadcasting, cable and satellite industries and authorizes funding of the Federal Communications Commission, which regulate broadcast licensees. If Democrats regain power in the House, Barton would not have authority to call a hearing.
CBS News anchor Dan Rather reported on President Bush’s National Guard service during the Sept. 8 broadcast of 60 Minutes. Rather relied on documents that were quickly called forgeries. He 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.
Barton indicated that the 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 do it differently? Does CNN [Cable News Network]?”
Barton added that he had no plans to “reinvent journalism ethics or whatever.”