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'60 Minutes' and Bloomberg News Battle Credibility Issues

News
by Jon Friedman
November 11, 2013 9:34 AM
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The CBS news magazine "60 Minutes" and Bloomberg News are normally regarded as the paragon of proper news reporting. Now, however, both organizations face serious credibility issues.

Jeff Fager, the head of the CBS network’s news division and executive producer of the weekly newsmagazine, told the Washington Post: “Did we let people down? Yes. Do people expect us to get it right? Of course they do. Do they expect us to be perfect? I don’t think so. When you come forward and admit a mistake, people will understand.” Read more from the Post: http://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/60-minutes-apologizes-for-benghazi-report/2013/11/08/6...

Fager took his extraordinary step after "60 Minutes" correspondent Lara Logan acknowledged Friday morning that her story on Oct. 27 about Benghazi was incorrect. After CBS initially defended the piece, Logan retracted and apologized for it during a segment of “CBS This Morning.”

The Post noted: "Logan said her source...had 'misled' her by falsely portraying his involvement in the events of Sept. 11, 2012, when the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi came under attack."

The source, who had been hired to safeguard the installation, told “60 Minutes” that he had scaled a wall of the compound and fought off an attacker. He said he later saw the body of the American ambassador to Libya, J. Christopher Stevens, in a hospital, the Post reported. Stevens was one of four Americans who was killed in the attack on the compound.

The "60 Minutes" error is troubling to me because I have become such a fan of the show, just like millions of others. I religiously watch it every Sunday night, either live or by a DVR setting. It takes on the most challenging and demanding reporting assignments, week after week, and presents the inside story with dispatch and often charming wit. Over the years, '60 Minutes' has taken on many competitors at other networks and defeated them in ratings, news quality and image. 

A few weeks ago, I was so impressed with a 60 Minutes segment that I went on Facebook and gushed about how consistently excellent the show is, year after year. Now I feel betrayed by its carelessness.Yes, I feel a little snookered.

Sure, it's possible that "60 Minutes" could have been misled, if not snookered, by an unreliable news source. But it is ultimately inexcusable for a news show with this pedigree to be taken in. It's not my place to demand that heads roll (but they will anyway). When the executive in charge has no choice but to make a public apology for his reporter's error, someone is bound to take the fall.


Then there is the Bloomberg controversy. Bloomberg News, one of the largest and most aggressive and ambitious global news agencies, decided not to publish a major investigative story, in an event that has drawn public scrutiny. The piece would potentially cause the Bloomberg company to have more difficult relations with the Chinese government. See more here: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/09/world/asia/bloomberg-news-is-said-to-curb-articles-that-might-ange...

Bloomberg's investigative story provided details about the hidden financial connections between one of China's wealthiest men and the families of senior Chinese leaders.

Was the Bloomberg senior management worried that the company would be kicked out of China if the story had run, as some Bloomberg employees darkly believe? Less than a week later, a second article, about the children of senior Chinese officials employed by foreign banks, was also declared dead, employees said. 

The New York Times reported that Bloomberg Editor in Chief Matthew Winkler "said in an email on Friday that the articles in question were not killed. 'What you have is untrue,' he said. 'The stories are active and not spiked.'”

This incident prompts a plethora of interesting ethical questions. Journalism operations pride themselves on taking tough stances with public figures, companies and governments. All that should matter is getting the story. When it might appear that a media entity has compromised its journalistic integrity -- particularly for business reasons -- it is bound to face significant questions about its credibility.

It's easy for the Times to kick dirt at one of its chief competitors and make Bloomberg look bad. We may not know what really happened here until some sort of smoking gun emerges. Until then, we have to ask questions.

Did Winkler act completely appropriately by determining that the stories were not yet ready for publication, independent of any internal pressure from the business side of the company? Did a disgruntled party within Bloomberg leak the contents of the conference call to the Times? If the latter event indeed occurred, why would a Bloomberg employee feel the need to make his or her boss look bad in public and basically betray and discredit the Bloomberg company?

Winkler, having steered Bloomberg from most humble origins in the early 1990s to its exalted state today, has only one real journalistic goal left for his entity: to win a Pulitzer. Perhaps he hopes that these stories will put Bloomberg News over the top. To play devil's advocate, despite what the Times published, maybe Winkler acted in the best interests of Bloomberg News.

In any event, this comes as more unwanted publicity for Bloomberg News this year. Last spring, Bloomberg reporters were caught using the Bloomberg terminal to snoop on Goldman Sachs, one of the company's top clients. It was a publicity fiasco for a company that prides itself on transparency at all costs. 

For the Bloomberg operation, this latest controversy comes at a turning point in its history. Founder Michael Bloomberg is poised to exit as the mayor of New York, at the start of next year, after three terms. The question of how visible Bloomberg will soon be in the company's affairs is a fascinating one. Observers will persist in asking what kind of a role he will take in the company's affairs. Would Michael Bloomberg put business interests ahead of his company's journalistic pursuits?

This looms is a particularly challenging period for the Bloomberg company. Thanks to Michael Bloomberg's very public position in city hall, his company has enjoyed a high profile as well in simple name identification. Michael Bloomberg has had a glamorous job; therefore, his company looks glamorous as well. But now he is (presumably) about to become a private citizen again, just another billionaire in the crowd.

I've heard that Bloomberg senior officials are concerned that HIzzoner's departure from city hall will give the news and information company a lower profile in the world since he won't be in the news as often. It would be upsetting to Bloomberg employees if their bosses held or killed a dangerous story for business reasons. (I worked at Bloomberg News for six years, from 1993 to 199, before I resigned to join another media company and I can say Bloomberg always had high ethical standards.)

The bottom line is that "60 Minutes," after making a huge error, acted appropriately by coming clean and admitting its mistake. But Bloomberg, fair or not, will no doubt continue to have to defend its decision for the way it handled an explosive story.

In the end, it's all about credibility. '60 Minutes' and Bloomberg News have to win back their credibility.

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