Here's looking at you, Dan
PORTLAND, ORE. — I'm glad that I wasn't anywhere near CBS headquarters in New York during the past few weeks. I have a feeling the atmosphere inside the building was a mixture of tension, frustration, and suspicion, not unlike the collective moods that ebbed and flowed through Rick's cafe in "Casablanca," as the cast of characters watched events around them spin out of control.
In this real-life version, one of the crucial plot elements involved some mysterious papers that appeared on "60 Minutes" back in September. Several purported memos about President Bush's youthful service in the National Guard ran into serious credibility problems. After CBS ordered an independent review of the broadcast, those documents became, in effect, letters of transit that ended up sending four high-ranking news staffers out the door and into the ranks of the unemployed.
There's no shortage of opinions about how and why the network blundered in its preparation and presentation of the story. Having worked in TV newsrooms, I do know that objectivity can be affected by the personal attitudes of producers and reporters. But the people I worked with were too busy nailing down the details of their individual assignments each day to allow for an ongoing agenda to develop and shape the overall tone of news coverage.
The investigators brought in by CBS said "myopic zeal" led the "60 Minutes" crew off the path of rigorous journalistic standards. And CBS chairman Leslie Moonves chastised anchor Dan Rather for "errors of credulity and over-enthusiasm." I found myself nodding when I read the words "zeal" and "enthusiasm." They both result from self-confidence and success.
I enjoyed working in a newsroom that produced top-rated broadcasts. It was exciting and professionally satisfying to be part of a dynamic organization. The momentum of success is not unlike what happens on a battlefield when you've broken through enemy lines. Confidence builds, morale is high, and everyone is on the lookout for new challenges. In that situation, caution can start to seem like a negative factor, but caution is what keeps you from advancing too fast and getting ambushed or driving off a cliff.
So at the risk of sounding overly cautious, I won't try to draw any wide-ranging conclusions about what impact the "60 Minutes" snafu will have on CBS or journalism. If Rick Blaine were here, I think he'd agree with me when I say, "It doesn't take much to see that the problems on one little network news program don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world."
• Jeffrey Shaffer is an essayist who writes about media, American culture, and personal history.