CBS Public Eye: An Obituary

Public Eye died because it operated exactly the way CBS News had originally intended. The organization changed, and suddenly transparency and dialogue were no longer affordable.
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Public Eye, a blog launched by CBS News in September 2005 with the stated goal of bringing "transparency to the editorial operations of CBS News -- transparency that is unprecedented for broadcast and online journalism," died this week due to the lack of "a sustainable business model." It was roughly 28 months old.

CBS Interactive cut several staff positions in December including that of Matthew Felling, then the editor of Public Eye. The blog's death was confirmed via a statement issued yesterday to TVNewser.

"We weren't able to find a sustainable business model for Public Eye," it read. "We are exploring ways to maintain a similar spirit of public discourse by engaging the audience and building a community around multiple voices." CBS News has not announced any specific plans for a new project.

Public Eye was launched in the wake of the so-called Memogate scandal and the resulting internal investigation. CBS first announced Public Eye in July 2005 when it unveiled a new Web strategy.

"The debut of 'Public Eye,' a new blog that will create a candid and robust dialogue between CBS News journalists and the public -- a move unprecedented among CBS's peers in broadcast and cable television journalism," read the announcement. Roughly two months later, the site went live with Vaughn Ververs, previously the editor of The Hotline, as editor. There were also two other staff members.

"In today's environment, the audience expects to be more directly connected to news providers than it did historically and I think that's a good thing," CBS News President Andrew Heyward told the Associated Press after its launch. "We all felt strongly that letting people know that we are willing to engage in a healthy dialogue about what we do we think will enhance our reputation and give us a competitive advantage."

In a play on the concept of an ombudsman, Heyward called Ververs a "nonbudsman" in the AP article. He said this was because Ververs was mandated to be a reporter, rather than a commenter. "I think he will be more likely to get cooperation within CBS News if he were a reporter and not another critic," he said. "There are plenty of people out there who are criticizing us already."

Not surprisingly, that distinction attracted criticism. "Etymologically, 'nonbudsman' doesn't change the word 'ombudsman' into anything meaningful, but what Heyward intends it to mean is that Ververs will be non-critical of CBS News," wrote National Review Online's Stephen Spruiell.

Spruiell also noted that the "p.r. offensive CBS launched two weeks ago to publicize the project included troubling signs that CBS intends to micromanage Ververs and take away his ability to address complaints that CBS News operates according to a left-leaning political agenda."

Speaking to American Journalism Review, Ververs said, "We will respond to complaints or issues that are raised on talk radio or in e-mail or a letter to us. We'll respond to anything if it's legitimate."

The watchword for the site was "transparency." Its goal was to offer people a window into the operations of CBS News and provide a forum for discussion. "Transparency is something CBS News' critics say the network has lacked," according to the AJR article. "Last year, after bloggers suggested that a '60 Minutes Wednesday' report had relied on fake memos, the network was widely criticized for reacting too slowly to warnings about holes in its story."

Over the course of its life, Public Eye held true to its mandate to offer reporting rather than criticism of CBS News. But the blog was at times stonewalled by people within CBS News when it attempted to report on internal problems.

In April 2007, a producer at CBS News was fired after plagiarizing from the Wall Street Journal for a video essay on "Couric & Co.," the Katie Couric/group blog on the CBS News website. Public Eye editor Brian Montopoli was rebuffed when he attempted to get a comment from an executive at CBS Interactive.

"Mike Sims, director of News and Operations for, declined to comment about the specifics of the matter," wrote Montopoli. Yet Sims was quoted in a post from the day before about identifying underage suspects. (Heyward had told AP that CBS News staff were not required to respond to requests from Public Eye, but that he had encouraged them to do so.)

To meet its mandate of providing discussion, the blog allowed moderated comments on posts and often invited outside commentators to contribute. (Disclosure: Public Eye once wrote a post in response to questions asked by me.)

"It's a sad loss, really -- Public Eye had some smart and insightful commentary, and used to run a terrific Friday column called 'Outside Voices' with contributors from outside CBS, which I was lucky to contribute to..." wrote Rachel Sklar of The Huffington Post. "...It's sad to see a project begun with such excitement (and such a bugdet, oy -- there were THREE editors at one time!) come to such a quiet and unlamented end, without even time for a whimper."

At the launch of Public Eye in 2005, Dick Meyer, the director of, wrote a post entitled, "A Short Pre-History Of Public Eye," to help explain the blog's genesis and mission.

"No one at CBS expects to make a bundle on Public Eye," Meyer wrote. "No one thinks it will boost ratings or become the next CSI or Google. No one thinks it's a great publicity stunt. We think, we hope, it is the right thing to do for CBS News, for journalism and for our readers and viewers."

Meyer's declaration about the blog's lack of a financial model would prove prophetic. Public Eye was killed due to the very attributes that supposedly made it such an "unprecedented" and noble effort.

"We wish sustainable business models on all bloggers, but holding 'Public Eye' to that standard seems odd," wrote Michael Learmonth of Silicon Alley Insider. "Recall that 'Public Eye' was introduced two years ago as part of a slate of reforms after Dan Rather's report on President Bush's military service was found to be based on falsified documents, unleashing a storm of conservative rage against the network. The idea was to strengthen CBS News' connection to its viewers by making the newsroom more 'transparent' -- not to make money."

Indeed, one could fairly say Public Eye died because it operated exactly the way CBS News had originally intended. The organization changed, and suddenly transparency and dialogue were no longer affordable.

Unfortunately, there's nothing unprecedented about that.

This article was originally published on Regret the Error.

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