January 19, 2005

Inside the Sausage Factory: How the News Is Made @ CBS

From deep within the Romenesko letters page , [Scroll down, pilgrim, scroll down. ] comes this fascinating inside look at how things are supposed to work at CBS News. KRISTINA BORJESSON, a producer, is not -- to say the least -- feeling too sanguine about any real reform in the future. Having worked for years at a magazine where the lawsuit du jour was a constant cost of doing business, I can attest to the elements she lists as just about the minimum necessary to take any story into print or onto the screen. How the players in the Rathergate Self-Fornication Festival were able to subvert these procedures remains the great untold story of the whole debacle. The "Why" is known if not acknowledged. The "How" remains to be seen -- at least by the public.

As an afterthought to her map of the CBS vetting procedures, BORJESSON also puts paid to the notion that Mary Mapes "broke" the Abu Ghraib.

Having spent three years at CBS producing hours for "CBS Reports with Dan Rather," having won an Emmy for investigative reporting in the process and having had to verify documents for my own shows, I can tell you that the bottom-line onus is on the producer to make sure that all the reporting -- including all documentation -- is in order. The rubber hits the road at the reporter/producer level -- period. Fact-checking is done at that level. CBS's lawyers vetting the piece are the next significant line of defense. Nobody mentioned them last [week], but they should have held Mapes' feet to the fire about the provenance of those documents. The senior producer, the executive producer and the correspondent usually check the content of the story not for factual errors, but for good storytelling: are all the questions that would arise in the audience's mind answered? Does the story flow well? Are there pictures missing? That kind of stuff. If you're a producer at "60 Minutes" and you can't nail down your facts or documentation, you shouldn't be there.

Tom Jarrell made some tough comments about Dan Rather on "Hardball" a couple of days ago which was interesting given the fact that as a "20/20" correspondent he probably leaned on his producers as much as Dan did on Mary Mapes. Jarrell could just as easily have been caught with his pants down (so to speak) on a big story. Here's how it usually works at the magazine shows:

1) Producer writes a blue sheet pitching a show

2) The show is approved and the producer continues research, lines up characters, etc.

3) The producer writes up a "poop sheet" for the correspondent outlining the story and describing the characters and the areas of questioning for each. The correspondent will also get a list of questions for each character he or she will be interviewing.

4) The field work is done: events and locations shot, secondary characters interviewed by the producer, primary characters interviewed by the correspondent.

5) Producer writes the script, fact-checking's done (often by associate producer), senior producer approves script, editing begins.

6) Rough cut is ready, senior producer reviews it and gives notes.

7) Fine cut goes to legal for vetting

8) Fine cut is done. Senior producer, executive producer and correspondent review the piece. At this point, usually only small changes, if any, are made.

Nailing down the facts is always a critical job and of course, the devil is always in the details. On the "Hardball" special on CBS, Matthews referred to Mary Mapes as an executive producer at first, which was wrong. Did his producer, on whom he relies for the facts, get it wrong, or did Matthews misread it on the sheet his producer gave to him? Also, the real truth about Mapes breaking the Abu Ghraib story is that she didn't break it, her associate producer, Dana Robeson did. Mapes wrongly took the credit for it. But as you can see, in the public's mind, the myth that Mapes broke the story lives on and probably will forever.

Posted by Vanderleun at January 19, 2005 9:32 AM
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"It is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood." -- Karl Popper N.B.: Comments are moderated and may not appear immediately. Comments that exceed the obscenity or stupidity limits will be either edited or expunged.

The above, when contrasted against the hypersensitive concern shown to the tobacco industry in the film The Insider, by (likely) the very same cast of CBS characters, sheds some useful light as well.

"It's OK to attempt to influence a presidential election, but tobacco companies, see, now we have a problem."

Yeah, right, whatever.

Posted by: Jeff Brokaw at January 19, 2005 11:20 AM

Of course, neither of them broke the story. They got a hold of photographs from an already broken and published one.

I talked to editoral director of CBSNews.com, Dick Meyers during a local talk radio phone in. and called him on the claim there. He backed down.


Posted by: Kate at January 19, 2005 9:52 PM

Rathergate got on air because Viacom wanted it to. That's why Dan and Moonbeam stil have jobs.

Posted by: Rod Stanton at January 20, 2005 11:35 AM