Fall 2004

CBS Lets the Pentagon Taint Its News Process

In acquiescing to government requests for two broadcast delays, CBS News erred.

By Stephen J. Berry

Dana Roberson, the veteran CBS associate producer who obtained the notorious Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse photos, describes herself as a “spontaneous type” of newsperson. “I’m like, okay, let’s go with it,” she said in a recent interview at her office in New York.

That instinct drives most good journalists. It is the force behind what Richard Hanley, director of journalism and e-media at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut, calls “the natural tempo and rhythm” of the news process. When it flows as it should, a journalist gets a story idea, gathers and verifies the facts, and submits the story for editing. The news organization publishes it without delay and lets the chips fall where they may.

Editors normally don’t let anyone mess with the tempo and rhythm of the news process absent compelling evidence that a story, such as one revealing troop movements or battle plans, would directly result in dire consequences.

They must be especially protective of this decision-making process when bad news is about to emerge, for that is when government tries to use its influence to lessen a story’s impact on public reaction. By resisting such efforts, editors and producers protect the public’s right to an independent press and shield the news against government manipulation.

The Bush administration has been masterful at managing war news. It has leaked false prewar information to bolster its argument that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, embedded journalist with frontline units, and prohibited shooting photographs of flag-draped coffins of dead soldiers.

When the Abu Ghraib prison story was about to break, the Pentagon twice— during a two-week period—persuaded CBS to delay airing the photographs on its weekly “60 Minutes II” program. By granting the delay, CBS let the government interfere with a major story at a point when the broadcast date had been set and the story had been completed except for the Pentagon’s response. The Abu Ghraib photos showed American military police forcing nude Iraqi prisoners into humiliating and sexually explicit poses, revealing what Roberson calls “the ugly side of war.” This story raised important questions about the administration’s management of the war. When broadcast, it proved pivotal to shifts in public opinion about the war and the handling of its aftermath.

Such newsroom practices by CBS do have an affect on the media’s credibility as an independent purveyor of news. They influence how other news outlets might respond to similar pressures by demonstrating how they dealt with government efforts to manage the news process. “Next time it could be four weeks,” said Hanley, a critic of the delays. “CBS has a precedent-setting impact.”

Journalists have taken major hits for their war coverage. In late May, The New York Times’s editor, Bill Keller, acknowledged that many of its stories supporting the President’s claim that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction were based on inaccurate information from anonymous administration sources and Iraqi exiles who had a stake in this position being featured in such articles.

The Abu Ghraib Story at CBS News

At the start, CBS News’s Abu Ghraib story followed the network’s normal news process. Roberson began the chase in February after a source tipped her about the photos. She and lead producer Mary Mapes traveled to Kuwait and talked to dozens of sources. Finally, someone sent the photos anonymously to Roberson. She and Mapes authenticated them, researched past stories, and conducted more interviews. After weeks of work, they had enough nailed down to broadcast the story and were ready to get the Pentagon’s response.

Roberson, Mapes, Executive Producer Jeffrey Fager, a network attorney, senior producer, and others talked about how to report about the photos as the ground conflict was heating up in Iraq. Roberson noted that everyone understood that this story could have serious consequences, especially with fighting in Fallujah and Najaf intensifying. “We knew this was not going to make the situation any better,” she said. Nevertheless, the decision was made to broadcast the story on Wednesday, April 14.

Four or five days before this date, “60 Minutes II” sought the Pentagon’s perspective. By then, several people, including an American soldier and a civilian contractor, had been taken captive by insurgents, and this became a factor CBS News also brought into its decision-making process, Roberson said. The day before the broadcast, the Pentagon agreed to provide a lieutenant colonel to respond, and cameras were set up in a hotel across the street from the network’s Washington bureau so CBS News’s Dan Rather could conduct the interview.

It was on this day that the network let the government interrupt the rhythm and tempo of its news process. In requesting a broadcast delay, Pentagon officials cited factors CBS News staff had discussed, including the tense situation in Iraq and the danger to hostages, according to Roberson. They also said they wanted more time to arrange for a higher-ranking officer to discuss the story. Fager granted the delay.

Upon hearing this, Roberson had mixed feelings. “I felt there is never a good time to run such a story,” she said. “We are journalists. We sometimes have to tell tough stories, and these photos provided eyewitness accounts of what was going on.” Iraqi civilians were dying almost every day, and Roberson didn’t believe the broadcast of these photos would inflame the situation more than it already was. However, she saw merit in agreeing with the delay. “But I wasn’t sure,” she said, “because once we delayed it, it could be the same thing every week. And we didn’t know then how many other people would get on the story.” The story could have been broadcast with the lieutenant colonel’s response, but Roberson believed a general’s comments would add credibility. Mapes, speaking on the Charlie Rose television show, said, “We believed it was the better part of valor to defer the story for a week.”

The week passed. On the day before the rescheduled broadcast, General Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, spoke with Rather and asked him to hold off. He again cited the tensions on the ground and danger to hostages. After consulting with Rather about General Myers’ request, Fager agreed to another delay. He said top CBS executives, including network president Andrew Heyward, were involved in this decision.

Meanwhile, Roberson was feeling antsy and disappointed. “I had these pictures and they were burning a hole in me,” she told me. “My feeling was to get them on the air and get it over with. But it is easy to vent when you are not the one who has to make the decision.”

As the third scheduled broadcast date approached, CBS News learned other reporters had the story. It broadcast its story on April 28, airing a response from Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt. In a postscript, Rather disclosed that the Pentagon requested the delay because of the “danger and tension” in Iraq, and that CBS granted the delay while pressing the department to “add its perspective.”

Roberson was relieved and exhilarated. Despite the frustrating delays, the story was a major scoop for her and “60 Minutes II,” and the plaudits poured in.

Looking back, Fager said the Pentagon’s concerns justified further consideration, and the two-week delay provided time to gather more information about the military investigations. He also said he was haunted by the thought of denying General Myer’s request and then learning about an American soldier turning up dead the next day with an Abu Ghraib photograph around his neck. Rejecting any suggestion that he allowed the Pentagon to manage the news, Fager said, “We ran the story.”

Running the story was a no-brainer. Roberson and Mapes’ work was the tough part, and Fager dilly-dallied with it for two weeks, acceding to government pressure even after he and other journalists at CBS had considered the possibility of major ramifications. Moreover, the Pentagon’s claims were weak for a variety of reasons. For one, its fears could apply to many war stories, such as those about Iraqi civilians, including children, falling victim to errant U.S. firepower. For another, predicting a story’s impact is futile. New stories have consequences—good and bad, short- and long-term—and they usually play out in ways that journalists cannot predict.

The Consequences of the Delay

Holding the Abu Ghraib story for this long could have jeopardized the significance of this news. CBS did not know whether the Pentagon’s request was a stall to find a better way to manage the impact or to allow time for another issue to arise that would lessen it. It appears that CBS News let the government frame the decision in such a way that it could justify continuous delays by claiming the Iraq situation is still tense and the insurgents still hold American hostages. Indeed, Americans and hostages from allied nations were in captivity well into the summer months. Tensions and bombings also continue despite the transition to an interim Iraq government.

Delaying the broadcast or publication of important stories denies the public an opportunity to assess government officials’ unrehearsed reaction to stories that call them to account. Such reactions are an integral part of a story. When CBS went to the Pentagon for a response, it was not a journalistic ambush. The military announced its investigation into prison abuses in January, and it knew about the photos at least as early as February. By granting these long delays, the Pentagon would have had the time to consult media managers, to carefully script a response, to run it by focus groups to better gauge how it would play, and amend it accordingly.

Nor was CBS justified in giving the Pentagon more time to put a general in front of its cameras. The Pentagon had plenty of time—four or five days—between the day “60 Minutes II” first sought a response and the initial broadcast date to determine who would offer its response. General Myers was also much less accommodating when he waited until the day before the second broadcast date to appeal for a second delay. Myers’ request also brought nothing new to the table except the power and prestige of his high office, and this turned out to be an important factor in Fager’s decision-making. “When the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff makes a personal plea and says he’s doing it for the safety of our troops, you have to listen,” Fager said.

But Myers’ rank was no reason for Fager to snap to. Military higher-ups deserve respect, but not awe. The content of Myers’ request, of course, should be “a factor in the equation,” said Robert Steele, a journalism values professor at Poynter Institute for Media Studies. “That said, we shouldn’t allow journalistic principles to be eroded by those wearing epaulets and stars. It means you do a quick reanalysis of your decision.”

The pressure that the Pentagon applied to Fager typifies the daily challenge to press independence. The press cannot be cowed by authority. In granting the delays, CBS was trying to be “a good citizen,” Fager said. To be a good citizen, the press just have to do their job, which is all most people expect of us. Our job is to ferret out the news and report it as soon as possible, not hold it back. Although there was no readily apparent harm from delay of the broadcast of the Abu Ghraib story, we will never know for sure. That’s why the press should not allow anyone to mess with the rhythm and tempo of the news process. 

Stephen Berry, an associate professor of journalism at the University of Iowa, teaches reporting, writing and investigative journalism. He was a newspaper journalist for more than 33 years, having worked most recently for the Los Angeles Times. He and a colleague won the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting.


No Comments Yet
Submit a Comment
   
   
   
Enter the words above: * Enter the numbers you hear: *
Switch to audio Switch to image
Thank you for your comment. It will be published after it is approved by an editor. Read our comments policy »