...don't even ignore 'em.
-- Samuel Goldwyn

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Here's mud in your eye.

Please humor me, here. I've been having a little blog debate with CBS News's Public Eye, the network's ombudsman-like subsite, over Ben Stein's position as combination CBS Sunday Morning commentator and paid spokesman for the U.S. annuity industry. I wrote about it here about a month ago. I got a little response from the Public Eye people, whose desks reside in the CBS Digital offices, not in the newsroom, which they say gives them some level of freedom to comment on CBS News behavior. Mainly, they say they don't get what I'm all exercised about. Now, as my last post on their site sinks into the PE archive, CBS has other things on its mind, and I don't think they're going to get around to addressing my question. So, for the record, I'm posting our exchange here. This is going to get a little long for a blog post. But hey, I'm going for, like, closure, here. And it's my blog.

My post on Public Eye Comments, March 29

Public Eye is a pretty good second-hand news-media commentary blog--about media organizations other than CBS. What it does less is address CBS behavior. Example. Several weeks ago, I emailed Public Eye about Ben Stein's Sunday Morning commentary on the sorry state of Baby Boomer savings. Charles Osgood delivered a disclosure after the commentary -- Mr. Stein, it turns out, is a paid spokesman for the National Association for Variable Annuities. I found via Google that Mr. Stein's been on the hustings with essentially the same speech for a couple of years now--speaking engagements, newspaper and Web site interviews, etc. I suggested this would be a fit subject for Public Eye, which is supposed to be CBS's experiment in "transparency." One of the PE staffers responded to my email: "We're debating whether to address it." Either the debate's been raging on behind the transparent scenes or it's been resolved in favor of opaqueness. I posted my complaint on my blog, but I don't have the traffic of a CBS.com. I hope the window I just typed this comment into is at least translucent.

Vaughn Ververs, Public Eye chief, replies on the blog, March 30

I'm confused as to what you would have us address vis-a-vis the Stein question since his ties to the annuities group were disclosed on the show and his comments were labeled commentary. It was a point of view, his work on behalf of that point of view was told to viewers. Not sure how much more transparency could be added to that.
I reply on PE, March 30

Sorry you’re confused. Let me be clear. I would have Public Eye address the fact that Ben Stein, a CBS News-paid and endorsed commentator, was allowed to deliver a commentary on a subject that may benefit an industry for which he is a paid spokesperson. I see this as a conflict of interests. CBS, if I interpret your response correctly, does not—or doesn’t care if it is.

I also do not accept your implication that Stein's commercial connection with his subject is O.K. because his comments were “labeled commentary.” Shouldn’t I expect “commentary” and commentators to be free of commercial motivation? What is the current definition of “commentary?”

I’m now having second thoughts about “transparency.” Seems to me, in practice it’s a concept more akin to Stephen Colbert’s “truthiness.” If the ethics of a situation weren’t questionable, no disclosure would be necessary. A transparent conflict of interests is still a conflict of interests. CBS News’s conflict policy is apparently “Anything goes, if you disclose."

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