CBS Executives Spark Controversy with Seizure of Investigative Reporter's Materials

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  • Source: Wayne Dupree
  • 02/22/2024
Anyone who is not perplexed does not get it.” These remarks from CBS pioneer Edward R. Murrow came to mind this week after speaking with network journalists. The termination of famous investigative reporter Catherine Herridge at CBS's Black Rock headquarters is causing issues. CBS executives' extraordinary seizure of Herridge's papers, laptops, and data, including sensitive source material, has raised worries about her layoffs this month.

Many, including the union, see CBS's attitude as an assault on free press by one of the nation's most recognized journalistic organizations. This raises questions regarding the pressure source. He said he had never seen a journalist's data seized and that it sent a “chilling signal” to CBS.

A former CBS manager, who requested anonymity, said he had “never heard of anything like this.” In previous trips, journalists removed all files and office furnishings, he said. Indeed, the corporation packed mugs and post-its for leaving reporters. The material's possession was “outrageous” and threatened secret sources.

SAG-AFTRA has discussed this topic with CBS and is worried about its impact on journalistic methods and source confidentiality, according to a union source. The union considers this “very unusual” and extends beyond this instance. “It is an issue of principle,” said a union rep. “It is serious. We are exploring all options.”

From Murrow to Cronkite to Mudd, CBS has been a leading news company. This is why many of us applauded Herridge's hire. The network risked becoming a Democratic and leftist echo chamber. It has been in third place for years and was alienating half the nation. Herridge was a renowned Fox News investigative reporter. Her reputation as a hard-driving, middle-of-the-road investigative journalist is similar to the network's legends.

Washington was suspicious about Herridge's termination timing. She pursued subjects the Biden White House and many Democratic powerhouses disliked, including the Hur report on Joe Biden's mental competence, the corruption scandal, and the Hunter Biden laptop. She pursued these stories despite CBS management, including CBS News President Ingrid Ciprian-Matthews, objecting.

Given the previous layoffs and dwindling revenues, the network justified Herridge's inclusion as unpleasant but necessary. But then something odd occurred. The network took Herridge's notes and data and told her it would determine what to give her. Her Fox and CBS files may include private information. It implies CBS News owns such records.

For decades of media professionals, this conduct is startling. Journalists may usually take their files. Journalists agree to share material with CBS in the event of litigation under the normal contract. That assumes they will keep their files. Reporters who leverage prior connections to pursue fresh stories with different outlets or end their careers with memoirs need such files. The files' heavy-handed handling raised questions about whether it was due to earlier story tension. No matter why, the firm is wrong.

These files may include Herridge-confidential sources. The corporation implies that CBS owns the content and confidentiality. Files from Herridge's extended tenure at Fox News cannot be considered threshold. CBS seems to be keeping such data too. When sources accept secrecy, the reporter agrees. Personal trust between a reporter and a source might take time to build.

It is clear the network backs that promise. Most sources realize that the writer will preserve their identity and information and only share it with a restricted number of editors or colleagues when required. Reporters tacitly commit to go to prison for secrecy, and many have. Telling sources that any number of nameless people, including non-journalists, might access or hold these material reduces the likelihood of such agreements.

When “Deep Throat” told Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein his name, they promised to keep it until his death. If informed this was privilege by committee with possible disclosures to corporate, legal, and HR officials, he would have been less willing. Reporters like Herridge have always protected privileged sources. Despite the possibility of contempt, Herridge is still in court defending Fox News items from 2017.

CBS suggests letting anonymous personnel filter Herridge's files to decide what stays with the network and what goes back to the reporter. That may profoundly change how reporters work and how much sources believe protection promises.

The government uses a complex “filter team” mechanism to restrict access to sensitive material in criminal cases. Courts safeguard such information via in camera and ex parte reviews. Ironically, the media looks more ad hoc. CBS appears to have embraced a “Trust us, we’re the media” stance. That might provide anonymous attorneys, tech personnel, and anyone undertaking this inventory and analysis access to these data.

CBS should rethink this action before harming itself or its correspondents. Ironically, it should not want to keep such documents, which might subject the corporation to production demands in litigation, such as the Fox source confidentiality dispute. Keeping such documents invites subpoenas.

CBS may be provoking a clash with the union, which must safeguard this journalist and all others seeking file confidentiality. The union may have to sue CBS to safeguard journalistic ideals, including seeking an injunction to secure these data and prohibit examination until a court decides on private and proprietary claims to the information.

According to Walter Cronkite, “our mission is just to hold up the mirror – to inform and show the people what has happened.” CBS may have to examine that mirror to determine what happened to Catherine Herridge's sensitive documents. Herridge did not discuss her departure.


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