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Now the Details

Media, ethics, and journalism. What works. What doesn't.

Jeffrey Dvorkin

Saturday, April 12, 2008

The Decline of CBS News: Why Are We Not Surprised?

In an article in the April 12th New York Times, the problems of CBS have been building for a while, says the author, Jacques Steinberg.

Katie Couric was brought in to be the $75 million dollar fix to resolving the once great "Tiffany Network's" perpetual loser status.

At the same time, assets were being stripped from the network news and from local affiliates' ability to cover the news locally and provide coverage for the network.

How bad is it? Bad when one considers how far CBS has fallen.

Full disclosure: as a 20-something grad student in London, back in the 1970s, I was hired in my first job of journalism at the CBS bureau to be the overnight"kid." My job was to be in the bureau from 6 pm to 9 am the next day a couple of nights a week. It involved answering the phone, watching over the wire service machines to make sure they didn't run out of paper, wake up the bureau chief if one of those machines sounded an "urgent" (also known as a "five bells") and let him know what happened. If he deemed the story "urgent" enough, then I was to try to find a correspondent and get him or her on the story.

Pretty exciting for a kid who had mostly spent his time in dusty archives researching for a thesis on the French Resistance.

The bureau chief in 1972 was Phil Lewis, a crusty New Yorker, straight out of central casting. In fact, I got the job through an early form of sexual harrassment!

A friend at college recommended me for the job. I went to the bureau for an interview, then located opposite Harrod's department story on the fashionable Old Brompton Road.

Lewis looked at me. "Ya got a girl friend?" he growled through the cigaret smoke.

"Not a serious one," I answered.

"Ya got the job," he said. "But ya gotta do me a favor. My niece is in town from New York. Take her out. Show her the sites. Show her a good time. But not too good, if ya get my drift. Get her back to the house by midnight. If she has a nice time, ya got the job."

I took her out to a pub and to dinner. Forgive me, but I can't recall her name. I got her back by 12 and called Phil the next day.

"Ya got the job kid. Be here at 6 tonight. By the way, it pays 18 pounds a week." Click.

The CBC London bureau in the early to mid-1970's was amazing. Journalists such as Charles Collingwood, John "Jack" Lawrence, Bob Simon and Bob Dyck were based there. "60 Minutes" had a full time presence and Mike Wallace was a regular visitor (at one time he came over to me as I was working on the teletype and pocketed my cigarettes!).

Sally Quinn came over to give color commentary as Princess Anne's wedding. I was the voice in her ear telling her who the BBC was showing in Westminister Cathedral when their cameras would pan the crowd and CBS was taking the feed to New York.

London was the center of CBS News activity. Film (yes, it was still film back then) was shipped from Viet Nam to New York via London. It was developed and edited for the Cronkite show and one of my duties was to drive out to Heathrow to deliver the finished product to PanAm for shipment to New York. The Irish Republican Army had begin its bombing campaign in London in those days. One night I was snoozing on Collingwood's couch when the windows blew in and I was covered with glass after the IRA decided to bomb Harrod's department story across the street.

Satellites were just coming into service. And CBS would rent the BBC satellite to feed New York. It was expensive and it was only done for the most urgent news stories.
These were formative days for me. The journalists I met were committed to the idea of News as a proud civic duty combined with adrenalin. My desire to be part of that life was formed by those experiences.

By the mid 1980's (long after I left London), CBS reached its high water mark: 38 foreign correspondents in 28 bureaus around the world. Today, CBS has five correspondents in four bureaus.

Even Couric, who has a great on air presence just can't deliver the depth of journalism that CBS was once able to provide. No one person can.

As CBS strips assets away from its news service and from its affiliates, no amount of charm, happy talk or voice over visuals assembled in New York can compensate. TV News with its corporate and stock market obligations probably will never go back to where they were. The hedge fund managers who have undue influence would never allow it.

The opening of the Newseum in Washington seems to me to be an acknowledgement of that.
News has now been stuffed and mounted as if it were an adjunct of the Museum of Natural History. But more on that later.

The challenge for the rest of us is to lament was we've lost, but find new ways to provide real coverage.

Suggestions welcomed.


  1. Amen. TV news -- all news -- was doomed the moment it started worrying more about making quarterly expectations than how to provide the news people need to make decisions.

  2. Very sad. Even more sad you couldn't even proofread this column before you posted it.

  3. In the days of the teletype machine wasn't an "urgent" FOUR bells? A "bulletin" was five and a "flash" 10.

  4. In London, teletypes came from the British Post Office. As I recall, "Five Bells" was an urgent. Could be they had a different signal than what existed in the US at the time. In any event, they were so loud that they were all hidden behind a glass baffle. There was an teletype alarm located for some reason in Collingwood's office, under the sofa. If all hell broke loose, that alarm went off and Collingwood would erupt out of his office. He kept trying to get it moved, but with little success.

  5. If you're going to criticize a journalism organization, it helps to have your facts straight. Five correspondents in four bureaus? By my count, their foreign correspondents include Lara Logan, Richard Roth, Allen Pizzey, Liz Palmer, Sheila MacVicar, Mark Phillips, and Barry Petersen. That looks like seven people to me, even if you don't count Kim Dozier and Bob Simon... both of whom aren't currently foreign correspondents per se, but maintain homes in Israel.

    As far as bureaus, I believe they still have offices in London, Rome, Moscow, Tel Aviv, Baghdad, Tokyo, and Beijing. I'll grant you, some of those bureaus aren't too big anymore (in many ways, they don't have to be), but I count seven once again, not four.

    I agree that CBS can be a fairly impotent newsgathering organization these days. They are top heavy with correspondents in New York and London, and rely too much on affiliates and agencies. However, you describe an organization of the 70s whose foreign operations were run by a maniacal harasser who left a random 20-something in charge of their worldwide operations for 15hour shifts. You call that an example of solid journalism? I think you're looking at things through rose-colored "Good Ol' Days" glasses.

  6. I suppose you could have mentioned that by the time of Princess Anne's wedding Collingwood was already very heavily into the sauce (with a flask under the wedding anchor desk) and that this wedding event was the beginning of the end for Sally Quinn who wrote in her book ("We're Going to Make You a Star,") that she had to move hotels to avoid the efforts of Don Hewitt to join her in bed. It may have been good that you were there to whisper in her ear. "The good old days," Indeed!

  7. CBS News could care less about covering issues of importance in the Black community. Why ignore the corruption of Black elected officials and ministers? The demise of housing and economic development there? Why do media "protect" those groups from exposure? Is someone going to become upset with them if they expose injustices in the Black community perpetrated by Black "leadership"? Congresswoman Sheila Jackson-Lee and now lately Congressman Alexander Green should be investigated and removed from office now! They are careless and focused on self-dealing, not their constituency's best interest.