In the days since Linda Mason was named senior vice president of standards and special projects at CBS News, she has appeared on virtually every network and major cable news channel, as well as in dozens of newspaper articles.
Her appointment, made in response to a blistering 224-page report critical of a 60 Minutes Wednesday segment about President Bush's military record, is rightfully being treated as major news.
But her promotion - generally seen in the industry as a solid first step in restoring the credibility of CBS News - is hardly groundbreaking. In fact, it is an old story of the television industry generally responding with such reform only after a disaster.
"There is a pattern that news organizations do not appoint someone to oversee standards until something goes terribly wrong and there is great pressure to do so," said Phil Seib, Lucius W. Nieman professor of journalism at Marquette University in Milwaukee. "And it is not just television. Look at The New York Times - only after the Jayson Blair controversy did it finally appoint a public editor. For those who applaud CBS' move - and it certainly is a good one - it is something CBS and every other major news organization should have institutionalized years ago."
Some did, but mostly only out of necessity.
Since 1993, David McCormick has held the position of executive producer for broadcast standards at NBC News - a role remarkably similar to Mason's. McCormick, who is also the network's ombudsman, was appointed amid a controversy over producers rigging the test crash of a General Motors pickup truck for the newsmagazine Dateline NBC.
"I was actually appointed ... after the flare-up with Dateline and General Motors," McCormick said yesterday. "It was a job created because of it."
Richard Davis has been executive vice president for news standards and practices at CNN since 1998. That would be the year of Operation Tailwind, an unsubstantiated newsmagazine report by CNN that the U.S. military used sarin nerve gas on deserters in Laos in 1970. Pulitzer Prize-winning correspondent Peter Arnett was forced to resign over the flawed report.
CNN created the senior management position Davis holds in response to the Tailwind controversy, CNN spokeswoman Edie Emery confirmed yesterday.
Jeffrey W. Schneider, vice president for ABC News, said yesterday that the standards position at ABC was not born out of crisis: "It was created in the '70s as the division grew and we needed to have decisions centralized."
The post is currently held by Kerry Marash, senior vice president for editorial quality, who does not do news interviews, according to Schneider. Her duties were described in a memo that ABC News President David Westin sent to the "ABC News troops" Tuesday in the wake of the CBS report.
"I know that all of you have spent some time over the last 24 hours considering the report on the difficulties of CBS News and the aftermath," Westin wrote. "We have had in place for some years the structure of review recommended by the panel and now implemented by CBS. Kerry Marash [and her colleagues] review all news magazine reports and investigative and potentially controversial reports for other broadcasts before they air. They maintain and enforce our standards and practices ..."
Even CBS News used to have an executive vice president of standards, the network confirmed yesterday. The first was Emerson Stone, in the late 1970s. The post disappeared sometime during the 1990s as part of harsh downsizing of the news division carried out by CEO Laurence Tisch after he took control of the network.
"There was an established position at CBS News," said Terence Smith, media corespondent for The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer, who worked at CBS News from 1985 to 1998. "And that person was supposed to protect the tone and caliber of what went out over the air."
But, as the competition increased and pressures grew for profits and ratings, "the whole notion of standards went by the wayside," Smith added.
"So, this is back to the future for CBS News."