bureaucracybusters

COWARDICE–NOT TRUTH–RULES AT THE WASHINGTON POST

In Bureaucracy, Business, Entertainment, History, Politics, Social commentary on January 30, 2020 at 12:09 am

During the early and mid-1950s, “CBS” came to have two meanings.

For the overwhelming majority of Americans, it stood for “Columbia Broadcasting System.”

But for many of the reporters and editors working in its News Division, “CBS” came to mean “Cowardly Bastards Syndrome.”

William L. Shirer had worked as a newspaper reporter for Universal News Service, a wire service for William Randolph Hearst. Assigned to Germany, he had been one of the first American reporters to chronicle Adolf Hitler’s rise to power.

In 1937, with the Hearst empire losing money, he found himself fired. Shortly afterward, he was hired by Edward R. Murrow, European manager for CBS News. Murrow hadn’t had any experience in journalism; he needed a top-flight reporter.

Shirer, a veteran reporter speaking fluent German and French, fit that bill.

Together, Shirer and Murrow were the beginning of what would become the CBS News empire. Shirer remained in Nazi Germany until December, 1940, when just ahead of the Gestapo, he left for the United States by passenger ship.

Shirer.jpg

William L. Shirer 

Meanwhile, Murrow achieved international fame reporting on the London Blitz, his signature introduction to each broadcast being: “This….is London.”

Thus, when both men returned to the United States after the war, they were genuine celebrities. Murrow took a job as a CBS vice president. Shirer continued to work as a correspondent.

In 1947, however, their longtime friendship came to an end.

Americans’ attitudes toward the Soviet Union—their ally during World War II—were hardening. Right-wingers saw no difference between liberalism and Communism. And Shirer was strongly critical of the Truman “loyalty oath” program for government employees and his catering to foreign dictators like Chiang Kai-Shek.

J. B. Williams, a maker of shaving soap, withdrew sponsorship of Shirer’s highly-rated Sunday news show. Within a month, CBS, through Murrow, moved Shirer’s program to Sunday midday and then canceled it.

Shirer blamed Murrow for not defending him—or the independence of the news division. After being fired by CBS, Shirer warned Murrow; “I’ve been through this before with newspapers. But you’re going to get it, too. Don’t kid yourself.”

Edward R. Murrow.jpg

Edward R. Murrow

Murrow’s turn did come, starting in 1958, with the cancellation of his hugely successful—and controversial—investigative series, See It Now.

Then, on October 15, 1958, in a speech before the Radio and Television News Directors Association in Chicago, Murrow attacked TV’s emphasis on entertainment and commercialism at the expense of  public interest.  

William S. Paley, the chairman of CBS and a longtime Murrow friend, never forgave the broadcaster for “biting the hand that feeds him.”

His influence almost ended at CBS, in 1961 Murrow accepted President John F. Kennedy’s invitation to direct the United States Information Agency. 

In 1965, Murrow, a heavy cigarette smoker, died of lung cancer at 57. Shirer died in 1993, at 89.

But the Cowardly Bastards Syndrome didn’t die with Shirer and Murrow. It lives on in American journalism—most recently at The Washington Post.

On January 26, basketball celebrity Kobe Bryant died in a helicopter crash in Calabasas, California.

Several hours after Bryant’s death, The Washington Post’s national political reporter, Felicia Sonmez, tweeted a 2016 Daily Beast story that detailed a 2003 sexual assault allegation made against him. 

The criminal charge was dropped, but Bryant settled a civil suit with his accuser for an undisclosed amount of money. He didn’t admit guilt, but he admitted that while he saw the encounter as consensual, his accuser did not.

Sonmez’s initial tweet about the allegation against Bryant ignited a firestorm of outrage. But she defended it, writing that “any public figure is worth remembering in their totality.”

Sports-obsessed fans, who worship celebrity jocks as genuine heroes, loudly disagreed. Sonmez found herself deluged with insults and death threats on Twitter and in her Inbox.

Then came the indignity of being put on suspended leave by her employer—The Washington Post.

Before she was suspended, Sonmez received an email from the Post’s executive editor, Marty Baron: “A real lack of judgment to tweet this. Please stop. You’re hurting this institution by doing this.”

Tracy Grant, the Post’s managing editor, said in a statement that Sonmez’ tweets “displayed poor judgement that undermined the work of her colleagues.” 

How tweeting a true story about a dead celebrity “undermined the work of her colleagues” was not explained.

Bryant had been charged with rape.

He had settled out of court on the same charge.

And truth is supposed to be the ultimate defense in a libel or slander lawsuit.

On top of that, Somnez had not even written the story—she had merely posted a Daily Beast story on Twitter. 

Erik Wemple, the Post’s media critic, wrote that Grant told Sonmez in an email that her tweet didn’t “pertain” to her “coverage area”—politics.

Responded Wemple: “If journalists at The Post are prone to suspension for tweeting stories off their beats, the entire newsroom should be on administrative leave.”

The Washington Post has had many proud moments—such as the publishing of the Pentagon Papers in 1971 and its monumental coverage of Watergate from 1972 to 1974. 

For journalists who cherish their freedom, this moment will long live in infamy.

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