28/09/04 ACTION ALERT: 60 Minutes: Shelving a Story to Boost Bush? CBS puts Niger exposé on hold as boss endorses Republicans


Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting

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In an outrageous politicization of journalism, CBS announced it would not air a report on forged documents that the Bush administration used to sell the Iraq war until after the November 2 election (New York Times, 9/25/04). A network spokesperson issued a statement declaring, “We now believe it would be inappropriate to air the report so close to the presidential election.”

The 60 Minutes segment was ready to air on September 8, but was bumped in favor of the now infamous report that relied on supposed National Guard memos whose authenticity CBS now says it cannot confirm. The furor over the Guard memos has created a situation where CBS executives say “the network can now not credibly air a report questioning how the Bush administration could have gotten taken in by phony documents” (Newsweek online, 9/22/04).

Of course, what's really inappropriate here is CBS allowing its PR problems to suppress a news report on an important issue until after it no longer matters. The shelved 60 Minutes story deals with the origins of documents purportedly showing that Iraq under Saddam Hussein tried to obtain uranium from Niger— documents that turned out to be forgeries. The story, according to the Newsweek online report, asks “tough questions about how the White House came to embrace the fraudulent documents and why administration officials chose to include a 16-word reference to the questionable uranium purchase in President Bush's 2003 State of the Union speech.”

Though such questions are clearly relevant to a presidential campaign that largely revolves around Bush's decision to invade Iraq, CBS intends to keep the answers to itself until the election has passed. Could there be more than the embarrassment over the Guard story behind this decision?

Sumner Redstone, CEO of CBS's parent company Viacom, made an unusual political statement at a gathering of corporate leaders in Hong Kong (Asian Wall Street Journal, 9/24/04):

“I don't want to denigrate Kerry… but from a Viacom standpoint, the election of a Republican administration is a better deal. Because the Republican administration has stood for many things we believe in, deregulation and so on. The Democrats are not bad people… But from a Viacom standpoint, we believe the election of a Republican administration is better for our company.”

Redstone repeated these sentiments in an interview with Time (10/4/04):

“There has been comment upon my contribution to Democrats like Senator Kerry. Senator Kerry is a good man. I've known him for many years. But it happens that I vote for Viacom. Viacom is my life, and I do believe that a Republican administration is better for media companies than a Democratic one.”

According to a write-up by Forbes (9/23/04)— the sponsor of the conference where Redstone issued his endorsement of Bush— the CEO asserted that “he never gets involved in any aspects of the network's news coverage.” But that claim, hard to believe when made by any media industry chief executive, seems particularly dubious given Forbes' report that “Redstone said he has been talking daily to top CBS officials and to Viacom board members about the controversy” over the Guard memos.

It is journalistically indefensible for CBS to withhold a story due to embarrassment incurred by another, unrelated piece. It is particularly unacceptable when the shelving of a story benefits a candidate that CBS's boss has just publicly endorsed. If CBS wants to restore trust in its news judgment, it can begin by applying journalistic standards, not political calculations, to the decision on when to air its report on the origin of the forged Niger documents.

ACTION: Please contact 60 Minutes and urge them to stand up for journalistic principle by airing the report on the Niger forgeries. And call Viacom and CBS executives and tell them to allow 60 Minutes to report the news without political interference.

CONTACT: CBS 60 Minutes 524 West 57th St. New York, NY 10019

Phone: (212) 975-3247

Sumner Redstone, Chairman, Viacom (212) 258-6000

Les Moonves, Chairman of CBS; co-President & co-CEO, Viacom (323) 575-2345

As always, please remember that your comments are taken more seriously if you maintain a polite tone. Please cc with your correspondence.

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