Because of an insertion made during copy editing, an article by John Limond Hart on yesterday's op-ed page erroneously stated that Gen. William Westmoreland's libel suit against CBS News concerns the CBS program "60 Minutes." It does not. The program involved in the suit was a "CBS Reports" documentary, "The Uncounted Enemy: A Vietnam Deception." We regret the error.
Mike Wallace has become the first victim of battle fatigue in the new media wars. The 66-year-old correspondent and star of "60 Minutes" was hospitalized Sunday for exhaustion brought on in part, associates say, by his days in the New York courtroom where retired Army general William C. Westmoreland is suing CBS for $120 million.
If a state of media war does exist, the Westmoreland case could well be its Gettysburg.
Westmoreland claims he was libeled by the 1982 documentary "The Uncounted Enemy: A Vietnam Deception," which alleged a "conspiracy" on the part of military leaders to mislead politicians and the public about the number of enemy troops in Vietnam in 1967. Wallace was the correspondent for the report.
Within CBS News, from top to bottom, many are disturbed and concerned by the way the trial has distracted and even obsessed those in administrative positions. A sign on commentator Bill Moyers' door says, "Free Howard Stringer," a reference to the news division's executive vice president, who has been embroiled in trial matters for weeks, virtually sealed off from the rest of the world.
Others there worry about the "chilling effect" that the trial, regardless of what the verdict will finally be, is having on the willingness of reporters and producers at CBS News and elsewhere to tackle potentially troublesome stories. Some feel the trial will accelerate what they see as an already obvious drift into softer, less troublesome, TV newscasting.
Says one CBS News insider, "When subjects are mentioned that might stir people up, there's a kind of inarticulated grunt, as if to say, 'Oh my God, this is not the time to take that on.' People are even writing memos differently, being very careful so that nothing could be used against them later in a courtroom."
Asked if Wallace's illness was aggravated by the trial, which resumed yesterday and which Wallace had been attending daily for weeks, Don Hewitt, executive producer of "60 Minutes," said, "No question about it. This guy has great pride in what he does. He's not happy to have a jury passing judgment on his professional life. A jury's verdict in a case like this sort of becomes a referendum on your soul. No one likes to have a referendum on their soul. I think it gets to a lot of people."
One of Wallace's working colleagues says of him, "He's possessed by the case. He thinks about it all the time. He feels he is innocent. He's a journalist, and to have this come down on him this late in his career is very hard on him. He gets really upset about it." Another high-ranking Wallace colleague said prior to Wallace's hospitalization that he had turned into "the proverbial basket case" because of the trial.
Wallace himself said, in late November, "It's not easy going into a courtroom every day and hearing yourself accused of being dishonest."
Some within CBS News are feeling the anguish of having the integrity of their operation questioned. And others find the trial a frustrating nuisance (one that may run until March) that has interfered with the fundamental operations of the division.
The official version is that all is well, or at least better than might be expected. Van Gordon Sauter, CBS News president when the documentary aired and now CBS Inc. executive vice president, said yesterday, "The suit, much to my surprise, has had no impact on the day-to-day operations of CBS News. No impact on the institution. It has had a profound impact on a few individuals, but no impact whatsoever on the organization."
CBS News president Edward M. Joyce said he is personally maintaining vigilance to see that there is no discouragement of tough-minded journalism within the organization. "I am determined there will be no chilling effect," Joyce said. "It must not be allowed to happen."
But Joyce also said he sees the Westmoreland case as part of a "pattern of assaults on the information flow" that is "abroad in the land" and that threatens the courage of those news organizations that do not have "the deep pockets of CBS" and cannot afford the enormous expenses of litigation.
"It is plausible that there could indeed be that kind of chilling effect," Joyce said. He thinks the "pattern of assaults" also includes former Israeli defense minister Ariel Sharon's $50 million libel suit against Time magazine (being tried in the same courthouse as the Westmoreland case), the CIA's appeal to the FCC for sanctions against ABC News over an erroneous story reported there, and the rise of "ideologically based groups" that raise funds for the sole purpose of suing news organizations. Westmoreland's defense has been bankrolled by the conservative Capital Legal Foundation.
"There is abroad in the land this new mind-set that the mechanisms exist to bring an 'errant' press under control," Joyce said. "These things represent a collective pattern that I find worrisome . . . It's a new climate, which at this point is only an attempt. Will it be successful? I don't know, but we're determined it will not be successful at CBS News."
Dan Burt, Westmoreland's lawyer, has spoken of aspiring to the "dismantling" of CBS News and has referred to the organization of being "rotten to the core." Lane Venardos, executive producer of "The CBS Evening News," said yesterday that Burt refuses to speak with any CBS reporters who are covering the story and does not invite any CBS reporters to his press conferences. Clearly, the people within CBS News think of Burt's mission as a vendetta, pure and simple, against the supposedly "liberal" press.
Says one producer, "This speaks to the quality of what every one of us does every single day. You can't go through something like this as an organization and not have it affect the content and quality of your work. In terms of spirit, it's one of the most dispiriting things that could happen."
Others expressing similar opinions about conditions within CBS News during this siege would talk about them only on background. But Moyers did say yesterday, "It's very hard, really, to judge the effect of all this on everybody because people don't talk openly about it. It's hard to know what's in the mind of the other person or even in your own mind. I would judge there has been an effect, but it is hard to measure.
"Whatever the temporary effect," Moyers said, "the best answer to it is to keep on doing good journalism for its own sake. The more of that we do, the better we can obviate whatever effect there has been."
There has been an absence of hard-hitting documentaries on CBS for nearly two years. So far the Edward R. Murrow plaques have not been removed from CBS News entryways and offices. But sources say the pressures that could conceivably discourage that kind of reporting are more noticeable than ever.
In rebuttal, executives at CBS News point to plans for reviving the dormant "CBS Reports" series, with contributions from Moyers and Walter Cronkite, on subjects ranging from international terrorism to racial conflicts in America. Moyers says he finds this "encouraging."
One chilling effect has been undeniable: some key executives have been virtually frozen in their administrative tracks by their preoccupation with the trial. Personnel changes have been postponed, programming decisions delayed, and the unveiling of the competitively crucial, revamped "CBS Morning News" program put off from an announced starting time of late last October to Jan. 14.
Most affected has been Stringer, formerly executive producer of the "Evening News" and now CBS News executive vice president. He was the executive in charge of "CBS Reports" when the Vietnam documentary was being prepared. For weeks, Stringer, a key figure in the new CBS News regime, was tied up in court. He was a nervous wreck in the days prior to his scheduled testimony, associates say. Now it has been determined that he will not have to testify after all. He arrived back in New York yesterday from a two-week European vacation nine pounds heavier and sounding much relieved. He did not want to talk about the case and its effect on CBS morale.
"It has not occupied all of our time," Joyce said, but he conceded the trial has been draining on Stringer, producer Andrew Lack (who is preparing the pilot for a new magazine show) and Wallace. Wallace's illness symbolizes the most drastic effects that the Westmoreland ordeal has had on those within CBS News.
"Mike is worried not just about himself, but about journalism," one producer says. "He's worried about what this is going to do in the long run, editorially, to television."
Wallace himself could not be reached yesterday. He is still resting at Lenox Hill Hospital. Doctors have ordered that there be no phone in his room, but he has managed to make contact with the outside world. Hewitt asked if he would be a little easier on Wallace when he returns to work, perhaps as early as next week. Hewitt said, "No! That son of a bitch isn't supposed to have a phone in his room, but he called me earlier this week just to ask if he'd have a story on this week's show!"
But Joyce said care would be taken to protect Wallace from overextending himself. He recently returned from a trip to Ethiopia that Joyce feels contributed to his exhaustion.
Venardos said he had felt no impact on his work at the "Evening News" because of the Westmoreland trial other than the fact that it's a story CBS must cover. "It's something we consider every day as a news story," he said, "but I don't feel any pressure about it all."
Whether CBS News is undergoing the big chill as a result of the trial is disputed by those who work there, but many do feel there have been serious effects. One executive insisted yesterday that "this isn't the worst thing that could happen to a news organization." Asked what could possibly be worse, he replied, "If we lose."