CBS should say it, S&S share corporate parent

Media

March 31, 2004|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN STAFF

Since Richard Clarke's March 21 appearance on 60 Minutes to discuss a new book in which he sharply criticizes the White House for its approach to fighting terrorism, some sympathetic to the administration say CBS failed to reveal its ties to his publisher for ideological reasons.

A desire to promote corporate interests seems more plausible. In the past two years, the program has aired segments on six newly published books on topics ranging from the story of a reporter who made up articles to the insider insights of President Bush's first Treasury secretary. Five were published by Simon & Schuster, which, like CBS, is owned by the media conglomerate Viacom. Not once was the connection disclosed, according to a review of transcripts.

The lack of disclosure of the corporate link for Clarke's book was "an oversight," 60 Minutes correspondent Leslie Stahl explained Sunday in response to letters from viewers.

The Clarke segment was aired just days before his testimony to a congressional commission into the 9/11 attacks and the Bush administration response. And, just as CBS undoubtedly had planned, it caused enormous buzz, as Clarke's assertions quickly sparked intense debate.

The "country is very much divided," said Sandy Genelius, a spokeswoman for CBS News. "We are experiencing an overheated partisan atmosphere."

CBS news correspondents often make viewers aware of corporate connections in other stories, she said. "To the people at 60 Minutes, it is worth taking a few extra seconds to defuse the issue," Genelius said. "We have nothing to hide."

Simon & Schuster frequently publishes books of significant public interest. 60 Minutes should be able to cover them, she said. "[Executive producer] Don Hewitt and the folks at 60 Minutes pay no attention to who publishes a particular book," Genelius said. "As Don has said many times over, he is looking for a good story."

Competition for provocative interviews often sparks an intense courtship between source and network. Sometimes major news stars such NBC's Katie Couric, ABC's Diane Sawyer and Barbara Walters personally intervene. As the media world consolidates - Viacom bought CBS in 1999 - so-called "multi-platform" pitches are possible. A CBS News executive's approach last year to former prisoner of war Jessica Lynch included an offer to facilitate programs on MTV and CBS and a book deal with Simon & Schuster.

Leroy Sievers, executive producer of ABC News' Nightline, said he is often challenged by many viewers who believe news decisions are made by corporate owners - in his case, the Walt Disney Co., which controls movie studios, theme parks, ESPN and other cable television outlets. Disclosure may dispel some skepticism, he said.

Local news programs and major news divisions routinely promote their networks' entertainment shows. NBC's primetime news magazine Dateline is preparing to devote significant time to Donald Trump, the star of its new hit "reality" program The Apprentice, and to do stories on the finales of longtime NBC sitcoms Friends and Frasier.

These books formed the core of 60 Minutes stories over the past two years:

Historian Michael Beschloss' Reaching for Glory on the secret tapes kept by President Lyndon B. Johnson.

Bob Woodward's Bush at War, an account of the president's response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

The Fabulist, former New Republic reporter Stephen Glass' thinly fictionalized account of his own experience fabricating several dozen articles.

Hall of Fame NFL linebacker Lawrence Taylor's memoir LT: Over the Edge, about his cocaine addiction.

Ron Suskind's The Price of Loyalty, about Paul O'Neill's tenure as Bush's first Treasury secretary. O'Neill collaborated extensively on the book.

Clarke's Against All Enemies.

All the books except Taylor's were Simon & Schuster imprints. But the ties were not disclosed by 60 Minutes.

"The problem with this kind of synergy is that it has political overtones," Fox News Channel media critic Eric Burns said on the air Sunday, then alluded to Suskind's book on O'Neill. "A couple of months ago another Simon & Schuster book ... [that was] also critical of the Bush administration got some time on 60 Minutes without a disclaimer." CNN's Lou Dobbs made a similar point.

But it is hard to make an ideological case. Woodward's book was received as a largely laudatory treatment of Bush. LBJ, a Democrat, was portrayed as insecure and power-hungry in Beschloss' rendering. The Suskind and Clarke books were unquestionably newsworthy.

It is the the failure to disclose that allowed critics to ascribe partisan impulses to the CBS interview of Clarke. "You should know that there is some sort of [corporate] relationship," said Nightline's Sievers. But he said he was surprised by the frequency with which Simon & Schuster books popped up on 60 Minutes. "That's a heck of a coincidence - if that's what it is," Sievers said.

Questions? Comments? Story ideas? David Folkenflik can be reached by e-mail at david.folkenflik@baltsun.com or by phone at 410-332-6923.

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