CBS News takes a bold step sideways. Its special report, "Eye on the Media: Business and the Press," is welcome, overdue and compelling, but network programmers dropped it into one of the worst time slots not just of the week, but of the year -- 10 o'clock tonight, Christmas Day, on Channel 9.
This capricious scheduling lets CBS take bows for putting on the program without risking any valuable properties -- choice time slots when viewership is high -- to accommodate it. Burton Benjamin, executive producer of the program, says from New York, "I'd love to have it on in place of 'Dallas,' but I'm not stupid." He concedes Christmas night is "not the best possible time for it," but says it's better than nothing.
"Eye on the Media" deserves better because it grapples with a continuing key problem. Businessmen claim they get unfair treatment from TV news, that the only business stories covered are scandals and that businessmen stand scant chance of fair shakes from zealots on shows like "60 Minutes." CBS taped three hours of a Media and Society Seminar on this subject at Princeton University in early November, then edited that down to an hour for broadcast. Both sides were represented, including Dan Rather, ABC's muckraking Geraldo Rivera, Mike Wallace, "60 Minutes" executive producer Don Hewitt, and Herbert Schmertz, smirking superflack of Mobil Oil.
Unfortunately, drastic editing left NBC News reporter Brian Ross entirely on the cutting room floor, and CBS correspondent Lesley Stahl doesn't get a word in edgewise until 43 minutes into the program. Rivera's participation was also cut short; the editing favored CBS News over other networks. Worse, the moderator is an insufferable prima donna, Harvard Law School professor Charles R. Nesson, seen earlier this year prancing through an ABC News "Viewpoint" program. Nesson makes a poor Phil Donahue. Apparently fearing he might go over the heads of the audience, he keeps rephrasing, prolonging and posturing over his questions. He seems to fancy himself the Pavarotti of forensics.
Sparks somehow fly, though. "I don't 'get' people, I get stories," Rather snaps. He also pricks Schmertz, during conversation involving access by the press to business executives, by saying, "Well, I think what you have here is a quintessential example of the perpetual motion, nonstop, all-American bullshine machine." Rather's an ace at tossing off them there colorful Texas colloquialisms.
The discussion deftly balances heat and light; it's feisty enough to be entertaining, substantial enough to be illuminating. Maybe Nesson deserves some of the credit for this, though often he asks questions in such a goofily oblique way that participants have a hard time getting a grip on them. Nesson appears much too delighted with the fact that he is appearing on television.
At one point in his hypothetical game-playing he jokingly says of CBS News vice president Roger Colloff, "He's young, he's good-looking, he's expendable." This is ironic, because soon after the taping, Colloff was expended -- transferred from CBS News to the CBS TV stations division.
Colloff signed off on the documentary "The Uncounted Enemy: A Vietnam Deception," which earned CBS a $120 million lawsuit. So some within CBS News predicted Colloff would be demoted as punishment--that he'd be the first victim of the second Vietnam war. Colloff himself insists the documentary had "absolutely nothing" to do with the change in jobs. "I'm very pleased with the new job, and it affords me a wider horizon at CBS," he says from New York. Others within the network say the job change is not a demotion and not related to the embattled documentary.
As for "Eye on the Media," it's a valuable contribution, albeit a belated one. ABC News has been a leader in holding up its own practices to public scrutiny with the imperfect but worthwhile "Viewpoint" specials and with "Nightline" editions devoted to media issues. Told CBS is a Johnny-Come-Lately, Benjamin says, "I think all the networks have been behind on this. I agree with what Hewitt says on the program -- that what we need is an Op-Ed page like newspapers have."
Columbia University's Media and Society seminars, meanwhile, go on independent of CBS News. One TV project that grew out of them will begin airing Jan. 5 on PBS. "The Constitution: That Delicate Balance," funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and The Annenberg School of Communications, consists of four programs taped during a three-day Media and Society conference last April in Philadelphia.
Another seminar, on TV coverage of terrorist activities, was also taped by CBS News in November and is now being edited. But CBS brass have yet to decide just where on the air they're going to bury that one.