March 10, 2005

News & Opinion: Media Bias or just a failure to Follow Through? 

By: 800-CEO-READ @ 2:58 PM – Filed under: Management & Workplace Culture

CBS News' Memo Gate isn't about liberal bias in the mainstream Media (MSM) or how right wing bloggers are out to get Dan rather. It's a story about how leaving expectations UNCLEAR wrecks any expectation of follow-through.

CBS News' "Memo Gate" fiasco has been played as a story of liberal bias in the MSM on sites like Instapundit, and BuzzMachine. Others like The Daily Kos see a smear agenda on the right and capitulation by the corporate types at Viacom/CBS.

But I don't see it either way.

If you read between the lines of the Thornburgh Report you can see a business unit just like yours with tight deadlines, conflicting priorities, and multiple objectives. You can also see that associates at CBS are asked to follow through flawlessly without a clear direction. CBS News was vague, general and ambiguous about just what they expected from reporters and producers regarding fairness and accuracy. Look at Section 1 page 1 of the pdf doc. Under general policy it reads:

"Credibility is essential to every news organization. It is a bond between us and our viewers and listeners. Nothing erodes the bond faster than viewers or listeners thinking that we have an axe to grind or that we are beholden to anyone or anything other than fairness and truth."

Now that should look familiar. The same kinds of good intentions can be found in the shareholder's letter in any company's annual report or in most mission/vision statements.

But three paragraphs later (on the same page) comes the head-scratching directive:

"These rules are not subject to an employee's interpretation. As with most of what is spelled out in this book, when in doubt, ask." (The italics are mine.)

Followed by:
"...personnel who are given or otherwise acquire tapes or other material from non-CBS sources must be satisfied that the material is what it purports to be."

That leads me to a question, "What precisely is an associate supposed to do when they are satisfied that the 'material is what it purports to be' but others aren't?"

According to their own published standards, if a CBS associate is not in doubt about their fairness and accuracy, whether that's because their personal biases, lack of technical training, being under too much pressure to "scoop" the competition or whatever, then the employee has no reason to ask anyone in management to check their work. Which leads to this question, "What did CBS news do to clarify their standards?"

Expectations are like beacons that guide everyone's follow-through. Each must be specific, measurable, accountable, realistic and time-bound. CBS's news standards aren't. They're corporate gobbledygook.

And in complex situations somebody in charge has to draw the line and say, "when push comes to shove, this is what you push and that is what gets shoved." You can't leave it to something as vague as "when in doubt...ask." CBS News executives didn't draw any clear lines. That's another reason why their people didn't follow through as expected. Memo Gate isn't a case of one biased reporter and a producer with an ax to grind.

It's the simplest of all business calculations - if people don't have a crystal clear direction, especially in situations where the stakes are high and time is short, it's only sheer luck that they'll deliver reliably. CBS News didn't give their associates a clear direction. That's what has cost them their credibility. And it's going to cost them in wrongful termination settlements.