CBS Affiliates Await "60 Minutes II" Investigation Report
By Al Tompkins (more by author)
CBS affiliates hope that the panel investigating what led to a controversial "60 Minutes II" story about President Bush's National Guard service record will report its findings soon. There is growing speculation among affiliate stations that the report is near. But even the affiliate stations have been given no clue what the investigation has discovered.
CBS affiliates are anxious to hear what the internal investigation by Dick Thornburgh and Louis Boccardi reveals. In some ways, they say, more than the network's reputation is at stake. The local stations have taken a lot of heat over this issue as well.
"I will put it this way, very simply I want the truth," KHOU-TV Houston President and General Manager Peter Diaz told Poynter Online. "We need to know how the system broke down at CBS."
"There are a lot of smart people at CBS News New York. The affiliates need to know how we got into this awful mess," former CBS affiliates Board Chairman Bob Lee told me in a telephone interview.
"I was, on the one hand, encouraged that the network brought in independent investigators to conduct a thorough look. I am, on the other hand, perturbed that it has taken so long," Lee said.
Lee, who is the President and General Manager of WDBJ Television Inc. in Roanoke, Va., said CBS affiliates began urging the network to be more responsive almost immediately after Internet bloggers began questioning the "60 Minutes II" story.
"We (local CBS affiliates) expressed the concern of the affiliate body that this not be brushed off. We believed very strongly that we needed to know what the facts were. We were all learning as we went. It was the first time that the bloggers and the Internet component took to task a story that one of the traditional network news department had aired. The immediacy and the apparent precision with which the bloggers disassembled the stories took us by surprise. Suddenly we had a new watchdog."
Lee says he is comfortable with the new voice that bloggers found in the CBS investigation.
"I think in any local station with a good solid reputable news department that should be a resource we should not fear. It should be almost an ombudsman for the viewer -- (except) to the extent the bloggers don't get it right either."
Lee said he received 20,000 e-mails from people nationwide who said they were angry about the CBS story at the center of this controversy. One reason he received so many was because of his position on the CBS affiliates board, but he estimated that at least 2,000 of the messages were by individuals who were not associated with mass mailing groups.
"When I was affiliates board chair, I would hear from stations from one end of the country to the other concerned that the viewer reaction to this controversy had been so adverse that they were worried about the rub-off on their local newscasts," Lee said.
Diaz says he logged 400-500 complaint e-mails from the public. "Maybe 300 or so of them were from local viewers. I was never able to tell how it affected KHOU on a day-to-day basis; I didn't see the numbers fluctuate. But on Election Night it sure seemed that our viewership for election results (anchored by Dan Rather) was lower than it had been." Rather once worked as a reporter and News Director at KHOU, and in 1961 made his network debut covering Hurricane Carla for the station.
Lee said the report about the investigation will be critical to restoring the public's trust in CBS News and to all network news coverage. "People did not like what they were hearing. The public puts an extraordinary trust in those who are permitted to come in to their home each night with their daily news. It was like people really thought they were scammed on this one; that they were given a concocted story. They were asking 'If I can't believe this what else can I not believe?'"
Neither Lee nor Diaz expects affiliate stations to get a preview or briefing on the contents of the investigation before it is released publicly.