Ververs helps CBS build credibility in public eye

CBS News suffered a huge blow to its credibility after a story about President Bush's service in the National Guard was considered specious by some critics and disingenuously politically motivated by others.

CBS News suffered a huge blow to its credibility after a story about President Bush's service in the National Guard was considered specious by some critics and disingenuously politically motivated by others.

In a controversy dubbed "Memogate" or "Rathergate," CBS News eventually withdrew support from the story, which set into motion a host of changes in the news department. One of the changes, which CBS says is unrelated to that controversy, was the relaunch of its Web site, along with an external blog that has an incredibly internal focus: CBS News. That blog, Public Eye, is led by editor Vaughn Ververs.

"It's impossible to know how it would have played out [if Public Eye were in existence]," Ververs says of the controversy. "I hope our presence here would have spurred them to come forward."

This is Ververs' second stint at CBS. He first worked for the network as an associate producer for its election and survey unit from 1995 to 1997. The rest of his career had been spent mostly at The Hotline, an online political news site. Dick Meyer, editorial director of CBSNews.com, reached out to Ververs based on this previous relationship.

"I imagine there was some initial trepidation from reporters, thinking, 'Is he coming to look over our shoulder and nitpick?'" Ververs admits. "I set out to establish a level of trust in that [I'd be] fair, accurate, and honorable in the way we approach issues."

But reporters, he says, "understand how the media landscape is changing" and that the public expects - almost demands - news organizations to adopt something like Public Eye.

"The first couple of weeks were a bit rocky," recalls Michael Sims, director of news and operations for CBSNews.com. "But when it [was apparent] he wasn't out to do a 'Gotcha!' most of the rank and file couldn't stop reading it."

Ververs isn't content just discussing CBS matters; he has tackled a broad range of issues and has even invited critics and media watchers to post thoughts about CBS on Public Eye's real estate.

"One of the most successful things we've done is taped a lineup meeting where the executive producers go through [potential stories], and the public sees the way the show is being made," Ververs says.

Public input is always on the mind of Ververs, who arrives to work at 8am each day and goes straight to his in-box and to external blogs to find story ideas. "A large part of my day is spent scouring blog search engines," Ververs says. "I also look at reader comments to figure out what things we need to respond to."

Ververs adds that he has engaged many voices in the blogosphere about whether there is a model of totally balanced media.

"One of the things that drew me to this is I still believe there's a place where people can go [where] they trust [the information] is news," he says. "This is part of re-establishing that among the media as a whole."

Sims has certainly seen an impact, reporting that CBSNews.com's traffic has risen considerably since the blog's debut. But Ververs does not concern himself with that.

"I don't want to know what the numbers are," he says. "I want to do my own thing. The feedback I have gotten within CBS has been very positive, but it's probably too early to get a gauge of [its effect on the newsroom]."

"This is a great time to be at CBS News," Sims says. "We're all working better knowing Public Eye is there." He adds that the blog is one of the tools CBS has used to connect with the public.

"The news division has taken a position since 'Memogate' to rebuild credibility one day at a time," Sims says. "Readers are skeptical, but the proof is in what Vaughn is doing. He felt like he could explain what we do and open it up to the public. I knew, at that moment, we had a gem."

VAUGHN VERVERS

2005-present
Public Eye, editor

1998-2005
The Hotline, television editor until 2002, then editor (also served as a staff writer from 1992-1995)

1997-1998
Fox News Sunday/Fox News Channel, associate producer

1995-1997
CBS News election and survey unit, associate producer

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