AJR  Drop Cap
From AJR,   October/November 2005

Eye on CBS   

The network launches a blog to scrutinize its news operation.

By Jennifer Dorroh
Jennifer Dorroh (jdorroh@ajr.umd.edu) is AJR's managing editor.     

One year after bloggers exposed fatal flaws in a CBS News report on President Bush's National Guard service, the network created a blog of its own.

CBS' Public Eye, which launched in September, takes viewers inside the newsgathering process. The blog poses the public's questions to news staffers and reports its findings on CBSNews.com. During its inaugural week, Public Eye posted video of an editorial meeting at the network.

The initiative aims "to bring transparency to the editorial operations of CBS News transparency that is unprecedented for broadcast and online journalism," according to the blog's homepage.

Transparency is something CBS News' critics say the network has lacked. Last year, after bloggers suggested that a "60 Minutes Wednesday" report had relied on fake memos, the network was widely criticized for reacting too slowly to warnings about holes in its story.

Larry Kramer, president of CBS Digital Media, says a blog like Public Eye "can't prevent a deception like Memogate. But it can force an institution to deal with instances like that faster or in a more direct or relevant way."

Public Eye's journalists report to Kramer rather than to CBS News Division President Andrew Heyward, who oversaw the "60 Minutes Wednesday" debacle, the network's subsequent reckoning and Dan Rather's early retirement. The blog is part of CBS' dramatic overhaul of its Internet operations, in which four different Web sites are being combined in a new digital division.

Steve Safran, a broadcast journalist who tracks television trends as a contributor to the Lost Remote blog, calls blogging "a terrific way of opening the process and providing transparency to it. Blogging the process of gathering news, making editorial decisions and producing the newscast will be the ultimate 'behind the scenes' tour," he wrote in an e-mail interview.

"Any time you can open a traditionally closed process and shine some light on it, you gain trust," wrote Safran, digital director of NECN: New England Cable News in Boston.

Leading Public Eye will be Vaughn Ververs, former editor of National Journal's Hotline, where his "Talking Heads" column expressed strong views on the media old and new. Bloggers "have claimed their seats at the media table," he wrote in his farewell column in July. "Just when they were being dismissed as pajama-clad noisemakers, the blogosphere began swallowing up careers."

Through blogging, Ververs says he hopes to spark a conversation about the state of journalism in general while reporting on how the news is produced and why a particular story leads "CBS Evening News."

Public Eye answers criticism of the network that appears in the blogosphere and in other media. "We will respond to complaints or issues that are raised on talk radio or in e-mail or a letter to us," Ververs says. "We'll respond to anything if it's legitimate."

Unlike many blogs, Public Eye's posts and its readers' comments are edited. On sites like Lost Remote, readers' responses to a blogger's topic are posted automatically. In contrast, Public Eye's three news staffers sift through audience comments and post those they find most interesting or thought-provoking.

Some bloggers are skeptical about the edited approach, while others say it might be necessary. "If news is truly going to be a conversation, it can't just be one way," Safran wrote. "At the same time, all blogs face the problem of anonymous jerks who post angry, often libelous posts. It's only a matter of time before a Web site is held accountable for libel or slander based upon an anonymous rant." He added, "I think you'll see more blogs (and sites in general) move to a moderated comment forum."

Ververs joins the growing ranks of reporters, editors, ombudsmen and even news anchors who are writing blogs to explain the decisions involved in producing and publishing news reports. As an employee of Viacom-owned CBS, he's also part of a corporate blogging trend, as companies from Boeing to Stonyfield Farm launch blogs to explain and market themselves.

To promote Public Eye, CBS has used the quintessential marketing technique of the Internet era: trying to create buzz in the blogosphere. It invited bloggers to the press conference announcing the overhaul of CBS' Web sites. A CBS public relations staffer called blogger Jeff Jarvis to suggest that he meet Ververs. "I was amused and maybe jealous: a blogger with his own flack!" Jarvis wrote in a post.

Ververs stresses that unlike many bloggers he strives to be objective. "This is not a place where I will sit there and wax on about what I think are the ills at CBS News. I'm not the prosecutor, judge and jury," he says. "What we're trying to do is start a discussion."