Jul 24 2006

CBS Responds on Schieffer Commentary

'We'll just have to agree to disagree'

On July 19, FAIR issued an Action Alert criticizing CBS Face the Nation host Bob Schieffer’s shallow and dismissive commentary on the current crisis in the Middle East. CBS Public Eye ombudsman Vaughn Ververs responded to FAIR’s alert on Public Eye‘s website in a July 20 post titled “We’ll Just Have to Agree to Disagree.”

Ververs began by noting that in covering the Middle East, it is “not hard to offend one side or another even when trying hard not to.” That is especially true, according to Ververs, when it comes to commentary on the region. He went on to quote Schieffer’s commentary, excerpts from FAIR’s alert, and comments from readers. Ververs’ own analysis followed:

Certainly the Middle East is a complicated region, difficult to put into full context in a lengthy broadcast, let alone a short commentary. Two quick points: First, Face the Nation is one of the “public affairs” shows on which newsmakers appear to discuss the pressing news of the week and, well, make news. These shows are produced for an educated audience and seek to understand where events are heading, not where they’ve been. The selection of guests, topics and types of questions will always be fodder for critics on any issue. These Sunday shows are a forum for making news, not providing in-depth, historical analysis to explain current events. The venue matters for those interested in criticism.

Secondly, Schieffer delivers a commentary each week, and it is clearly labeled “commentary.” You can legitimately question the wisdom of the network’s Evening News anchor delivering his commentary at all. It may well be that viewers will associate the opinions with a particular show or the news division as a whole. But commentary has appeared on news programs throughout television’s history. (Schieffer has discussed the possibility of delivering commentaries on the Evening News after Katie Couric takes the anchor chair.) As long as the audience is informed that they are hearing opinion or commentary, not straight news, different journalistic rules apply. You may not agree, but it’s represented as opinion, not fact.

Even opinion writers aren’t allowed to make up their own facts, of course, but they are free to make their own assumptions and provide their own analysis of events. They may use evidence supporting their case and exclude or ignore facts that may undermine it. That’s called making an argument, the goal of which is to persuade. Watching and reading Schieffer’s commentary, it seems to me there was less an effort to persuade the audience to any particular point of view than to express the tangled nature of the region. But, then again, that’s my opinion and you’re free to disagree.

FAIR is pleased that Ververs responded to FAIR activists. His first point would seem to be somewhat extraneous to FAIR’s criticism; while Face the Nation‘s newsmaker interviews may indeed be intended to “make news” rather than explain it, Schieffer’s commentary clearly was intended to explain events—or rather, to assert that there was no explanation for them. As for the idea that Face the Nation “seek(s) to understand where events are heading, not where they’ve been,” it’s hard to see how one could predict the future without some understanding of how we got to the present. In any case, Schieffer’s commentary did not anticipate future events, but instead recalled past events (the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, the capture of the Israeli soldier) and looked at how they did or did not affect the situation.

Ververs’ second point is that commentary has long been part of television news, and that commentary is judged by different standards than straight reporting is. This is true enough; the question is whether Schieffer lived up to the standards of commentary. We would disagree with Ververs’ claim that a commentators are free to “exclude or ignore facts that may undermine” their case; a commentary that depends on the audience not knowing basic facts (such as the fact that Israeli forces have killed 144 Palestinians in Gaza since their “withdrawal”) is not an argument but a deception.

Finally, we would, in fact, take issue with Ververs’ opinion that Schieffer was trying to “express the tangled nature of the region.” Schieffer’s commentary was not saying that the conflict was complicated, but rather that it was simple: The actions of “fundamentalists in Gaza and Lebanon” have no rational motives, but instead occur simply “because this is the Middle East.” This comes perilously close to blaming violence on ethnicity, and when commentary by CBS‘s most prominent newscaster becomes that simplistic, we feel that it’s grounds for concern.