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CBS Just Can’t Get Along with Bloggers?

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It was bloggers who forced CBS Evening News anchor Dan Rather into early retirement, and yet CBS – at least somebody there – is still being condescending towards the new media.

How CBS Blew Up My Puff Piece
How CBS Blew Up My Puff Piece

This story began in pursuit of an ironic 300-word puff piece about somewhat of a catfight between MoveOn.org and CBS Evening News anchor Katie Couric. WebProNews is not in the habit of dabbling in political squabbles, lest they directly involve Internet and Web issues that affect online business. We also cover Web 2.0 and blogs – the new citizen media.

In short, we didn’t have a dog in this fight, and your humble author who, just like Ferris Bueller doesn’t believe in isms, would tell you he is neither Right nor Left, but maybe, if he had to label himself, is a John Stuart Mill Utilitarianist with Thomas Paine Libertarian tendencies and a slightly Aristotelian disdain for the unwashed masses* (so maybe you shouldn’t ask).

Regardless, WebProNews becomes involved because someone at CBS allegedly (a CBS spokeswoman was quite adamant about the "allegedly" part) insulted viewers who complained about Couric’s "softball" reporting from Iraq and mocked them for getting their information from blogs.

Oh, and Katie Couric’s publicist threatened to sue us, which also gets us involved in a much bigger way, and makes this story, much, much more newsworthy, but we’ll get to that later.  

The story begins this way:

MoveOn.org posted a scathing video on YouTube accusing Couric of not doing her job as a journalist and just parroting government talking points, and encouraged MoveOn members to email CBS to complain.

One such member, Errol Siegel of Austin Texas, heeded the call and emailed CBS Evening News on Monday, September 10, at 11:42 a.m, CST. He wrote:

I started watching Couric’s series of reports hoping to learn something valuable..  All I learned was that CBS is content to produce puff pieces scripted by the institutions it purports to be investigating.

I did not hear Couric push for real answers on one single issue!  She simply took everything she was told and parrotted it back to the masses.

I’m embarassed and saddened.  You should be too.

A reply to the email appearing to be from CBS Evening News, with the address Evening@cbsnews.com, arrived just 23 minutes later reading:

Actually most intelligent people were very impressed by the quality of our reports from Iraq and Syria …Apparently you missed most of the interviews that were done over there…imagine you got your information from a blog somewhere…

Siegel tells WebProNews, "I have spent years writing letters, sending e-mails, and making phone calls. This is the first time I have been personally insulted by a major news organization."

At CrooksAndLiars.com, a commentator named Dominic Lucarelli recounts a similar response to his complaint:

Sorry you didn’t get a chance to see much of the reporting from Iraq….if you had, you wouldn’t have written such a note…imagine all your info came from a blog…too bad.

"Not TOO condescending, eh?" remarks Lucarelli.

This is all very interesting to me, only because of the irony. It wasn’t too long ago that Dan Rather was shamed off the airwaves by the very medium CBS News is allegedly disparaging. This is the same medium that even the New York Times has credited as a viable news source, as bloggers are often first on the scene at major news events; Hurricane Katrina comes to mind.

It was also interesting to me that the once "liberal media" was now being accused of being a government mouthpiece, but I was more interested in confirming whether or not a representative of CBS made those remarks, and if I could talk to Katie to get her reaction to the accusations, to talk about the new media and how the established media is handling it.

When asked about the comments in the email, CBS Evening News Communications Manager Jennifer Farley (Couric’s publicist) said, "It’s very easy to make it look like it came from us," and would not confirm that the email came from CBS News, despite the email address. 

I understood the comment, "It’s very easy to make it look like it came from us," as well as other comments she made as a denial that CBS sent the email, and so, out of professional courtesy, not out of any type of journalistic requirement, I contacted Ms. Farley the next day (before I wrote the 300-word ironic puff-piece) to confirm CBS’s position.

I did it politely, because I’m from the South, thanked her for her time and wished her a nice day. My understanding: CBS denies sending the email, cannot confirm that it came from there.

A few minutes later, Ms. Farley, by telephone, insists that everything that was said yesterday was off the record, that CBS didn’t even have a "no comment" because there was nothing to comment on, and if I printed that I could expect to hear from CBS’s legal department. Very suddenly, then, she has turned my puff piece into a major story about a major network trying to bully a Web-publication with the threat of a SLAPP suit. And I am stunned by how she has transformed something routine into something newsworthy. 

I’m also aware (because she told me) that Ms. Farley graduated top of her class from Columbia Journalism School, and was quite willing to let me know how much I had to learn about journalism, but she should be at least vaguely familiar with the First Amendment, and that a source can’t just give information and say it’s "off the record" with any type of viable legal grounds. It’s a professional courtesy, not a legal mandate, and that courtesy sort of flies out the window when lawsuits are threatened.

But enough about me and Ms. Farley. Let’s get back to the email.

MoveOn traced the IP address of the email addressed from Evening@cbsnews.com, the one that would be very easy to make look like came from CBS to 170.20.0.80, which resolves to a mail server at CBS Inc., 524 West 57th Street, New York, NY 10019.

Adam Green, Civics Communications Director for MoveOn.org, says, "It’s a real problem when big media corporations like CBS refuse to ask tough questions challenging President Bush’s lies about Iraq, yet feel fine threatening little-guy online news sites for daring to hold CBS accountable."

Yeah, well, we’re not that little. We can hold our own. And though the New York Times mistakenly called me a blogger, I didn’t take any offense, just appreciated the name drop, and that at least some part of the established media recognizes the power of citizen journalism, and that the new media has the right – and ability – to stand up to the old media.

 

*Warning: Philosophical joke. It’s hard to be at once humble and Aristotelian; this is in no way a swipe at the poor or the homeless, but meant only as a way of expressing a distrust of mob rule, and therefore a preference for representative democracy rather than direct democracy.

CBS Just Can’t Get Along with Bloggers?
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