Way back in the 1960s, when television news began to metamorphose from its modest and sober format into the Wagnerian spectacle that it is today, who would have envisaged the journalistic model it would emulate? Most of us would expect television news to follow news standards comparable to those of high-quality newspapers, focusing on the same news stories and according them the same dignified coverage.
Well, television news chose a different model. Anyone who watches the morning and evening news shows, the documentaries and the public affairs broadcasts now knows that the models for television news have been the pulps: he-man stuff for the guys, true confessions for the gals. It is an amusing irony. Yet one of television news's recent targets is not laughing. He is Gen. William C. Westmoreland, and last week he filed a libel suit against CBS for $120 million.
Remember the he-man magazines? They run articles with such titles as "I Was Held Captive by 30 Amazons and Survived." Remember the confession magazines: "I Took Hormones to Enlarge My Bust and Cried on Prom Night"?
The he-man magazines run stories of dastardly deeds, bizarre and somewhat humiliating adventures, men tested at the limits. The confession magazines run stories of broken hearts, trauma, and macabre illnesses.
Television news has mixed all this into one appalling bouillabaisse, and Gen. Westmoreland is irate. He feels that he was libeled by CBS's documentary, "The Uncounted Enemy: A Vietnam Deception," wherein the thesis was that the general presided over "a conspiracy, at the highest levels of American military intelligence, to suppress and alter critical intelligence on the enemy." He says that he never did anything of the sort and that CBS has palmed off a colossal lie, that it alighted upon a dubious conspiracy theory and doctored the evidence in its documentary to validate the theory.
The general made his original complaint three days after the documentary was aired, creating a controversy that TV Guide decided to investigate. The result of that investigation was bad news for CBS. In a very persuasive cover story, TV Guide described the documentary as a "smear," incorporating practices violating CBS's own official guidelines and some surprisingly ham-fisted deceptions.
According to TV Guide, CBS hired Westmoreland's chief accuser as a paid consultant and interviewed him on the show as though he were a disinterested observer. Never was he identified as a paid consultant.
In violation of its guidelines CBS rehearsed the aforementioned paid consultant for his interview. The targets of the documentary were never allowed to see the interviews of their accusers or granted second interviews to correct misstatements made earlier. CBS did screen the interviews of other witnesses for a witness whose position abutted the thesis of conspiracy, and it did this so as to persuade the witness to come on stronger in a second interview. There were Elysian questions for friendly witnesses and blowtorch questions for CBS's prey.
Yet the most disturbing of TV Guide's charges are that CBS misrepresented its story and that it actually edited an interview to imply falsely that Westmoreland was conspiring to deceive. CBS withheld information that cast doubt on its thesis. It presented as fact matters that it knew were still in dispute, and in one case matters that were clearly false.
Now this whole controversy is headed for a libel court. For those of us who feel that unfettered expression is one of the great strengths of American public discourse this is not good news. In a litigious society such as ours, any constriction of the libel laws could transform freedom of expression into a nightmare.
Yet if it is true that CBS knowingly broadcast a "smear," libeling Westmoreland and deceiving its audience, CBS is a genuine menace to our First Amendment rights. No one cares if the pulps palm off fiction as fact, but if network news acts with such abandon, people are bound to care, and Americans will in due course see their right to free expression diminished.