CNN ACTED SWIFTLY and openly in dealing with the Tailwind debacle, in which a report alleging that nerve gas had been used during the Vietnam War was broadcast and later retracted.
The network admitted grave errors, apologized and vowed to set up safeguards so that such a mistake would never happen again. Some heads rolled. But unfortunately, the role of a television correspondent in the minds of the public has suffered a damaging blow.The defense offered by the correspondent, Peter Arnett, that he was just reading work prepared by others, that he contributed "not one comma" to the story, has raised legitimate questions in the minds of the people who watch us.
My colleagues and I are now routinely asked: "Is this really the way you work? Is this how it's done in TV news?"
My clear and unequivocal answer is: No, this is not the way we work. I reject the idea that a television correspondent is neither responsible nor accountable for what he or she says on the air.
True, television news is teamwork. When out covering a story, a team usually comprises a camera crew, a producer and a correspondent, in the same way that a newspaper reporter whose byline is on a story is supported by editors, fact checkers and researchers.
As in any other profession, unfortunately there is a pecking order. For better or for worse, the television correspondent is usually paid more than the rest of the team, gets more of the glory and is the de facto team leader. This is not because we are mannequins or megaphones; this is because ultimately, more is expected of us.
Ninety-nine percent of the television correspondents I know do not do this job - often dangerous, often heartbreaking, often at great personal sacrifice - just to read work prepared for us by others. Correspondents have been imprisoned, wounded, even killed on the job. We do not put ourselves on the line to contribute "not one comma."
This is true whether covering daily news or preparing magazine reports. The notion of correspondent as just a "talking head" or "reader" is an aberration, not the rule. Yes, producers often research news magazine pieces and do setup work before the correspondent becomes involved.
But correspondents with even the most basic sense of responsibility do not and should not simply read the prepared questions and finished scripts of their producers.
Ninety-nine percent of us understand the power of the medium we work in and the responsibility that entails, and we accept our duty to the public. The I-was-just-reading defense pumps blood to the very heart of the worst prejudices about television news correspondents and the news media in general. It tarnishes all correspondents, all our organizations, and devalues what we do.
The bottom line is that a television correspondent's most important contract is with the public. It is unwritten, unsigned, but very much understood. Trust and credibility are the commodities we trade in; without them we are worthless. Often that credibility comes under attack, sometimes with justification, but must we give it away?
In the same way a network correspondent accepts the awards and the praise when the team's work deserves it, a correspondent must accept the consequences when mistakes are made. It's that simple. Ninety-nine percent of the correspondents I know understand it, and 99 percent of my colleagues at CNN want you to know they understand it, too.