Restoring public's trust in CBS News


Not long after he took over as president of CBS News in the late 1990s, Andrew Heyward appeared on the cover of American Journalism Review. The headline was: "Can Andrew Heyward Save CBS News?"

At the time, the issue was whether he could rescue a foundering network news operation from low ratings and stiff competition from cable news networks. Under Heyward, ratings dropped - but profits increased as the executive beefed up the network's newsmagazines.

Questions about Heyward's management abilities took on new life yesterday after an independent panel released a review of a seriously flawed 60 Minutes Wednesday segment. Heyward, surprisingly, retained his job even as two of his hand-picked senior deputies and two other producers who oversaw the Sept. 8 report were fired.

Heyward once again is charged with saving the CBS News division. This time, its crown jewel and television's most lucrative news magazine franchise - 60 Minutes and 60 Minutes Wednesday - has suffered a devastating blow to its credibility. In March, it will lose its anchorman when Dan Rather steps down. And it trails NBC and ABC in news audience ratings.

Calling Heyward "the right person to be leading CBS News during this challenging time," CBS Chairman Leslie Moonves said in a statement that the executive would "turn this crisis into an opportunity."

Some industry observers, however, wondered whether Heyward, the top news division executive when the Sept. 8 report was aired, could now successfully restore its credibility.

"If Andrew Heyward stays as president, then he and those in charge with him have some big lessons to learn, " said Robert M. Steele, scholar for journalistic values at the Poynter Institute, a Florida journalism think tank.

"They had some major fissures in the structure of CBS News, and this report highlights those fissures. If they don't make some significant operational, structural and standards changes, they could have another earthquake."

At a staff meeting yesterday, Heyward promised to meet "with as many of you as possible" to discuss how CBS News "can emerge from this ordeal as an even stronger news organization."

"It is a difficult day because we have lost colleagues who many of us know not just as co-workers but as friends," Heyward wrote in a memo.

"It is an important day because it represents a unique opportunity for all of us at CBS News to learn from mistakes surrounding the flawed 60 Minutes Wednesday segment and reaffirm our commitment to the American public to practice journalism of the highest standard."

In addition to firing four producers and news executives, the network yesterday promoted CBS news executive Linda Mason to senior vice president, standards and special projects. Moonves described Mason's new role, which puts her second in command to Heyward, as "an integral part of the re-vitalization of CBS News after this difficult time."

Mason, who has 13 Emmys and two Peabody Awards, has been at CBS since 1966. Most recently, she was executive producer of CBS' election coverage and liaison to the committee investigating the 60 Minutes report.

"This is about the worst I've ever lived through. Everybody is very sad," Mason said yesterday in an interview with the Sun.

With Heyward, Mason plans to amend the CBS News guidelines. Previously, the guidelines stated, "'You will tell management your confidential source, if asked.'" Mason said. "But the panel makes the point that management never asked who the confidential source was. And it's not just who, now we sort of want a bio of them, too. "

Those measures strike some journalism experts as too narrow. "The issue for the viewer is: 'Have you told me what you've really learned from this incident, and have you assured me that you've now put procedures in place that it won't happen again at any CBS program?'" said Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism. "I don't think they've told what, if anything, they've really learned."

Copyright © 2020, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad