The "independent" report on Rathergate has been released after far too long, and with the removal of a few predictable (and expendable) employees, Les Moonves plans to pat himself on the back for saving CBS' reputation and sponsors. The Blogosphere is outraged, but really, did we expect anything to be different? Ironically, I expect this move by Moonves to prove disastrous for CBS, and here's why:
FIRST - the bloggers. Almost no one in the Old Media understands the phenomenon of the New Media, and especially the rise of citizen bloggers. I say 'citizen', because that's why Moonves was incredibly stupid in not directing his response to the real danger to his empire. Moonves was worried about Thornburgh, and he should have been, but he did not think things through. There were two worst-case scenarios to face; the first was allowing evidence to get out, which would prove the link between CBS and the Kerry campaign. The omission, hiding, and destruction of evidence by CBS was predictable, especially the e-mail trail. However, Moonves forgot to consider the other worst-case possibility. The report issued today was far too pat, and offered too little contrition. CBS tried to claim no political motivation at all, a claim patently false on its surface. This alone would prompt bloggers to dig deeper for the truth. Moonves somehow forgot exactly what happened when '60 Minutes' played that forged memo. Immediately the documents were challenged, and in a matter of days we learned details about typewriters, military document protocols, and the personnel opinions of a National Guard Colonel to a degree no one would have expected. And when pressed, the bloggers' experts trumped the network shills. It wasn't close, which is one reason why CBS finally gave in and promised an investigation. It has not occured to Mooves and his consultants, that there are literally thousands of bloggers waiting for the next big story to print, and they know from experience now that the lead story will get all the support it needs. Sooner or later, the break wil come, and when it does, the world will fall in on CBS. Rathergate came when CBS was thought to be pretty much untouchable; the next big scandal at the network will hit a target with known weak spots. Moonves should have thought about how to deal with the blogs. This whitewash will do nothing but make blogs angry and focused.
SECOND - CBS is nothing if it's not Old Media. Just as the Newspapers underestimated Radio, and in its turn Radio underestimated Television, so now the Old Media has missed a critical paradigm shift. TV news is not going away, anymore than radio news or print news did, but there is a true shift of attention and, more importantly, standards. There was a time when newsmen took their responsibility seriously, because there was always plenty of 'yellow' journalism to combat. There actually was a time, when the New York Times represented information which had been vetted for accuracy, and balanced by a sense of responsibility. Of course, it should also be remembered that the Times built that reputation for responsibility, after a prior history of bias and sensational journalism. History moves in circles sometimes. Now, people are able to verify claims and fact-check stories with more resources and ease than ever before. And the Rathergate story has inspired many people to double-check their facts, and in plain English, it means that not only is CBS losing viewers for its news, that slide shows no signs of slowing down, much less ending. I would not be surprised to see '60 Minutes' end in the next couple years, as well as CBS News as a major player in network news. Already, if you have been paying attention, you will have noticed that the news portion of the CBS budget is decreasing, relative to the Entertainment division. In real-world terms, that means no more franchise Anchormen like Dan Rather and Mike Wallace, and much smaller budgets for sending news crews out on high-profile stories. CBS has simply refused to acknowledge the gaping hole in the side of their ship, and that is a fatal mistake.
THIRD - CBS fought the investigation and lost. The reason they lost, was because there were three critical values the network needed to retain, and they managed none of them. Those goals were Integrity, Market Share, and Relevance. CBS lost its Integrity early on, by its clear attack mentality against the Bush Administration; Dan Rather's hatred of anyone named Bush is well-known (remember his attempt to provoke George H.W. Bush back in the 1988 Election), and CBS took not action to redress this obvious bias. Moonves was running a network with a reputation for grudges and prejudice. After all, Bernard Goldberg wrote about the problem years ago.
As for Market Share, we're fast approaching autopsy conditions for CBS. In a recent Washington Times article, Dan Rather is accused of holding the network "hostage to his ego and political agenda as he slowly kills CBS News." Ouch. The Drudge Report observes that the CBS Evening News is losing market share to reruns of The Simpsons. For the period ending January 2, the CBS Evening News finished out of the rankings for the top 136 shows, behind such offerings as "Charmed" and "Blue Collar TV". This is not good for business.
But worst of all, is the quest for Relevance. CBS News made its name off Cronkite's Vietnam stories against Johnson and Nixon, off Rather's vendetta against Nixon, and on a continuing claim to holding weasels up for scrutiny. Now that CBS is revealed as a large, rather slimy weasel itself, Moonves claims notwithstanding. Les doesn't seem to realize that he has the credibility of Scott Peterson right about now, and his pretense that the public can "count on CBS News for fairness and accuracy", is not selling any better than Enron stock these days. After all, who but a CBS hack really believes that "Heyward is an executive of integrity and talent, and the right person to be leading CBS News during this challenging time", or that "Dan Rather has already apologized for the segment and taken personal responsibility for his part" ? Serious error, Mr. Moonves. That bang you just heard was another shot you put right into your foot. You could have taken the tough but healthy step of cleaning house and rebuilding the foundation, but instead you put lipstick on the pig, and haven't quite figured out yet that we're not fooled.
There is fear that CBS' latest whitewash of its conduct is selling with too many people. Actually, the lack of emotion to this latest turn of events, is nothing more than the realization that CBS News is no longer important, that whatever they do, they will no longer hold the influence and power they used to hold. We'll still chase them down on their lies and tricks, but just as no one worries about anyone believing too much they read in the Weekly World News, no one is taking CBS News that seriously, either.
Buh-bye, lying eye.