Smoke, but No Fire
When CBS and 60 Minutes neutered a story on the tobacco industry in fear of a multibillion-dollar lawsuit, it raised questions about the dangers of television networks operating within conglomerates. In CJR’s January/February ’96 issue, Lawrence Grossman, a former president of nbc News, wrote that while cbs executives had a duty to protect shareholders “from undue risk owning a company with a news division is one of the risks CBS stockholders take.” The network was a corporate sibling to a tobacco company, and a major lawsuit could have interfered with CBS’s pending sale to Westinghouse. Those entanglements were not a decisive factor in the story’s treatment, Grossman concluded, but their existence “almost demanded that CBS do whatever it reasonably could to put the piece on the air,” to avoid the perception that business interests had defanged a report in the public interest.
• The San Jose Mercury News publishes “Dark Alliance,” Gary Webb’s
investigation of crack dealing, the contras, and the CIA.
• Fox News, MSNBC, and Al Jazeera all launch.
• After 58 years, the San Francisco Chronicle publishes Herb Caen’s last column, which joshes the mayor for boarding a bus without exact fare.
• America’s last major newspaper strike ends in Detroit after 583 days.
Washington Rumor Mill
In CJR’s March/April ’98 issue, Washington veteran Jules Witcover took a look at the frenzied first days of reporting on the Lewinsky scandal. “The tabloids were hard pressed to outdo the mainstream,” he wrote, cataloging an array of sensational scoops (some false, many eventually proved true) with opaque, second-hand, or suspect sourcing. As “the story spread like an arsonist’s fire,” a poll found three-quarters of Americans thought the press was giving it too much attention, further tarnishing a news industry that “already struggles under public skepticism, cynicism, and disaffection.”
• The Drudge Report reports Newsweek has “spiked” a story on President Clinton’s affair with a White House intern.
• Spy magazine folds.
• The Associated Press reveals that during the Korean War, US soldiers killed perhaps hundreds of civilians at No Gun Ri.
• Los Angeles Times splits profits from a special section on the city’s new Staples Center with the arena’s owners.
• All television networks and The Associated Press call Florida, and the 2000 presidential election, for Vice President Al Gore.
• America Online and Time Warner’s merger creating the world’s largest media company gets antitrust approval.
Dan Rather’s dramatic, middle-of-the-night announcement of the Bush “win” is now part of election-night legend: “… a hip-hip hooray and a big Texas howdy to the new president… . sip it, savor it, cup it, photostat it, underline it in red, press it in a book, put it in an album, hang it on the wall.” Upon recanting that grandiloquence, Rather told viewers: “If you’re disgusted with us, I don’t blame you.”
—from Neil Hickey’s “The Big Mistake,”
“To be a wise and skeptical journalist these days is to be a patriot.”
—from Mike Hoyt’s “Journalists as Patriots,”
• The New York Times memorializes the 9/11 victims through “Portraits of Grief”.
• Supreme Court decision in Tasini v. New York Times protects freelance authors’ digital copyrights.
• Michael R. Gordon and Judith Miller’s co-authored story in The New York Times suggesting Iraq sought aluminum tubes for uranium enrichment bolsters case for war.
• While on assignment in Pakistan, Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl’s murder is filmed and released by his killers.
The anecdote was chilling. In early 2003, a cable producer phoned an intelligence reporter to ask what he thought of the case supporting the invasion of Iraq. After the reporter offered a geographic analogy from the Vietnam era, the caller asked if he could please spell it: “T-O-N-K-I-N.” On the eve of the war, Ted Gup, writing in CJR’s March/April ’03 issue, warned that journalists must discuss the perils of intelligence: it is subject to political meddling, rarely conclusive, and has an uneven historical record. Gup pointed out that the main casus belli—that Iraq might give weapons of mass destruction to terrorists—had been discounted only months before by CIA Director George Tenet. Gup quoted Washington Post veteran Walter Pincus saying any Al Qaeda-Iraq link was “clearly hyped.” He closed by suggesting the next generation would need to learn how to spell another place: “B-A-G-H-D-A-D.”