Lately, I've had my eye on CBS. Not that I've been watching the network's shows, mind you. Just that I've been enthralled by the Memogate flap, in which 60 Minutes II aired a story critical of President Bush primarily based on a collection of likely forged memos.
Politically, it's to be expected. What's fascinating to me, as a journalist, has been the bizarre behavior of CBS and, in particular, Dan Rather. First, for what it says about how the organization compiles a controversial story. It used to be that reporters were trained to follow the story, wherever it led. To get both sides. Apparently, CBS had a theory it was determined to prove, by trotting out unimpeachable witnesses and experts who agreed with the premise, and by ignoring partisans who disagreed.
Curiously, this is the caliber of sloppy, one-sided reporting Rather and friends usually attribute to the Internet. True, Web sites and blogs have turned everyone into a reporter. A Disneyland sweeper can anonymously post a rumor he heard third-hand and instantly discussion boards are ablaze debating its credibility. Yet the legitimate press is supposed to be above such rumor mongering.
What I find even more fascinating has been CBS's obstinate defense of its story. They refuse to launch an internal investigation. They dismiss criticism because the critics have an agenda or, worse, are from the blogosphere. They insist over and over again that the memos are authentic, convinced that if they say it long enough and loud enough someone will believe them.
Me, I'll put my money on the Internet, where a story can be verified or corrected almost instantaneously. Certainly my online columns on MousePlanet have contained errors over the years and readers quickly let me know it. My response has never been stonewalling. Usually, the correction would be reported in a Mailbag letter or a future column. My hope is the Internet-and MousePlanet in particular-never sink to the depths of CBS.
Let's just be thankful that earlier this year 60 Minutes didn't go through with a planned exposé of Disneyland. You see, last fall a hopeful author approached the news program after he was unable to sell his slam book on Disney to publishers. Inspired by the news of the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad tragedy (link), he thought material from his unpublished book exposing Disneyland's deadly maintenance department could be spun off into a segment on 60 Minutes.
Since his accusations were evidently based on information in my 1999 book More Mouse Tales, he directed CBS to contact me to corroborate his claims. 60 Minutes was mildly curious until a Los Angeles Times article questioned park safety by quoting a flock of disgruntled (mostly ex-) Facilities workers. Now 60 Minutes had some names.
In mid-December, CBS flew a reporter from New York to Southern California to see if they had enough to go on. Her to-see list included Stanley Gold and several former cast members, including Bob Voice of Thunder Klostriech. But, if I remember correctly, I was first on her list, right after she got off the plane. We sat down for lunch, and she pulled out her notebook. How dangerous was Disneyland?, she wanted to know.
I did share my deep concerns about Disneyland's Facilities department. How I thought safety was affected by the tightening budgets, the revised procedures, the downsized staff, the loss of job knowledge, and the low morale. I speculated that all these factors contributed to a less safe environment, but admitted none guaranteed dangerous conditions. It's not like Disneyland was demanding mechanics work barefoot on broken glass. Disney just was no longer consumed with safety. Plus, I noted, I thought conditions had turned the corner and things were finally, slowly beginning to improve.
She furrowed her brow. I could tell this wasn't at all what she wanted to hear. I need more, she said. She stared at me as if I was supposed to conjure up some damning revelation. I stared back. I didn't believe Disney was evil, just misguided and, perhaps, slowly coming to that same realization.
Not enough, she sighed deeply. It's still not a story. I disagreed; it was a fascinating story, but a complicated one. Film the old-timers who say maintenance is worse. Film the official Disney spokespeople who claim maintenance has never been better. Show some statistics. Mention the recent accidents, and let viewers make up their minds. Evidently, 60 Minutes viewers aren't allowed to make up their own minds. CBS does it for them.
Her few-day trip dragged on for close to two weeks, straight through Christmas, as she scrambled for harder evidence. She called every few days to see if I had any more names, any more memos or reports. Her concern was having enough ammo to get the go-ahead from the CBS lawyers. Her paranoia about what she needed to earn the blessing of Legal wouldn't have been a concern if, like the L.A. Times, she had accepted the fact that this was a story with two sides. The deterioration of Disneyland's once-vaunted maintenance department was, in many ways, subjective. It wasn't black and white. Not being a regular viewer, I didn't realize that 60 Minutes stories are black and white.
This reporter didn't seem to be investigating anything. It was as if she'd already written the program in her head and was casting actors to play The Informants. What else do you have? Do you know anyone else? Do you have any incriminating documents? We need more documents.
In the end, CBS, mercifully, killed the story. I just shudder to think what might have aired if the reporter had gotten her hands on a tenth-generation copy of a memo from Paul Pressler.