'Memo-gate' unlikely to mar '60 Minutes'

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CBS's "60 minutes" may be walking on media hot coals right now as a result of the so-called "memo-gate" over President Bush's service in the National Guard, but as previous firestorms have shown, news-credibility issues bother media watchers more than advertisers or the general public.

CBS, handling the PR crisis in-house, has received upward of 2,000 calls on the story since the Sept. 8 broadcast. But advertisers have been noticeably quieter. "It might end up being a black mark against the news division, but it's not a negotiating point" for advertisers, said Ray Warren, managing director of Omnicom Group's OMD, who believes that story needs to shake out before a rush to judgement on CBS. One CBS executive said the network was not aware of any advertisers pulling out.

`every last club'

But others said the debate over the authenticity of the memos on which "60 Minutes" based its story is bound to have had some effect. "Buyers are going to use every last club to drive down the price," said Roger Domal, VP-national sales director for Fox News. Advertisers "use every single advantage they can come up with. Every single time you run into a situation where someone can hold something against you, they will definitely use it."

The cable news service has, of course, made much capital out of the possibility that the memos could be false. CBS has repeatedly stated that the facts of the story are not in dispute and that it will continue to get to the bottom of the story, wherever it may lead.

Has the media coverage of the issue affected the audience for the show? It's probably too early to say. The Sept. 8 edition of "60 Minutes," which questioned the National Guard service record of President Bush attracted 9.9 million viewers and was the No. 1 rated show for the night. The following Sept. 15 edition, which included coverage regarding the authenticity of the documents, came second to NBC's "Hawaii," and showed a slight decline in viewership, drawing 8.2 million viewers.

Over the last few years, "60 Minutes" doesn't appear to have lost any of its impact. It was the top-rated TV newsmagazine and the 17th-most-popular show during the 2003/2004 season, with around 14 million viewers. The previous year it ranked No. 18 with over 13 million viewers.

Launched on Sept. 24, 1968 by executive producer Don Hewitt, the show has become TV's longest-running newsmagazine. As such, "60 Minutes" has certainly been in the cross hairs before. The hallowed program was the subject of a lawsuit brought by Gen. William Westmoreland in 1987 that accused the general of exaggerating claims about the success of the Vietnam War. The two parties settled out of court. The movie "The Insider" also brought to life CBS's battle with tobacco giant Brown & Williamson over accusations made by a whistleblower.

immediate action

Some PR practitioners said they would have handled the current flap a little differently. "They have accrued such a good reputation for integrity, I think this will blow over," said crisis expert Howard Rubenstein, president of New York-based Rubenstein Associates. "I'm surprised CBS didn't apologize."

CBS, for its part, said it did act immediately and that will continue to report the story, which means that authenticating the documents will be part of "60 Minutes" coverage and its future PR strategy.

Peter Arnett, the former CNN news anchor, now reporting as a freelancer from Iraq, told Advertising Age his experience eight years ago with a controversial report on Operation Tailwind, in which U.S. special forces invaded Laos in 1970, cannot in any way be compared to what is happening to CBS right now, since Mr. Arnett's interview subjects recanted. He is still the subject of lawsuits, he said. "Dan Rather hasn't fabricated anything," Mr. Arnett said. "I'm really impressed with Dan Rather and his integrity. [CBS] will survive it."

contributing: matthew creamer

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