Not friendly fire

News director at odds with CBS over story

Was WJBK censoring the news when it didn’t give CBS the story it wanted on Devil’s night? The station’s news director tells his story.

By Mort Meisner

Mort Meisner is news director of WJBK, Detroit.

Author bio information is from the time of article submission and may not be current.

Source: FineLine: The Newsletter On Journalism Ethics, vol. 3, no. 2 (February 1991), p. 3.

This case was produced for FineLine, a publication of Billy Goat Strut Publishing, 600 East Main Street, Louisville, Kentucky 40202. Reprinted with the permission of Billy Goat Strut Publishing. This case may be reproduced for classroom and research purposes. Publication of this case in electronic or printed form requires written permission from the publisher and Indiana University. An exception is granted for use in readers designed for specific academic courses.

 

Who is Al Berman, and why is he saying all those nasty things about me? Al Berman is a CBS senior producer for the “popular” late-night news show “America Tonight” which airs on some CBS affiliates. It was Berman who called WJBK the day before Halloween which many refer to in Detroit as “Devil’s Night.” This is a night where for the past 15-20 years hard-core young thugs set fire to abandoned buildings and cars throughout the city.

When I was a kid growing up in Motown, this was a night reserved for dumping over garbage cans on people’s lawns and perhaps ringing doorbells and running away before the resident could answer. Alas, times have changed. Now let’s get back to Berman and the ensuing controversy.

When Berman called, he requested I provide a reporter to do a live shot for “America Tonight.” Berman asked for a story about the fires. I told him we would be glad to help, but I was quick to point out that while the problem still existed, it was not nearly as bad as it had been in the mid-’80s.

Undeterred, Berman said, “Yeah, I know, but I need a story on the fires.”

I explained we would help out, but the piece I was willing to provide would have balance. You know, all the good stuff about neighborhood patrols chipping in to help curtail the problem. Berman said there was no time for such a lengthy piece.

No time for balance? Was this really CBS News talking? OK, I thought, how about two stories, one on the fires and the other on how most folks were doing their part to assure that things did not get out of control: neighborhood patrols, extra police, block parties for would-be wayward kids? In other words, the other side of the story. Berman said there would be no time for such a thing. After all, this is a network news program, and 2:00 for one piece was about all they could handle.

By now it’s getting late in the afternoon, and I’m talking to this producer for what seems like the fifth time. (It was only the third.) I tell him, “Look, pal, either you take the piece with balance, or I don’t give you the story.”

Berman has led some to believe that I threatened to deny videotape of the fires to the network because I was concerned about the image of the city.

I am concerned about the image of the city. But at no time did I withhold or threaten to withhold raw tape of the fires. We are a CBS affiliate, and we provided any and all tape they requested. My point was — and remains — I will not put a reporter of mine on national TV with a story I would be ashamed to put on my station.

The story is far from over. Eventually, Mr. Berman calls me back and says, “OK, I’ll take the story with the balance, but it has to be kept short.” I commend him on his ethics, but as I am preparing to leave for the evening, I tell my managing editor that I don’t completely trust Berman, and I warn against an end run.

Now all of you are going to be shocked, but literally 30 minutes after I left the station, Berman called Managing Editor Nelson Burg and requested you know what. Burg had orders from me to tell Berman and “America Tonight” there would be no piece if there was any attempted chicanery.

Berman was livid and was apparently left with a big hole in his show. Too bad!

It is now almost three months after the incident with “America Tonight,” and Berman continues to refer to me as a hack, lacking ethics, and a shill for the city of Detroit. Berman says we would not provide the story because Mayor Coleman Young asked the media to go easy on the city. I invite anyone who reads this article to call the mayor’s press secretary, Bob Berg. Ask him how much WJBK or any station in this town shills for the city.

With regard to the issue which has been raised as to whether it is a journalist’s role to be concerned with how his or her city is perceived — you’re damn right it is. How should this role be played out? Through reporting every story with balance. Report two, three, or four sides of a story when necessary.

Right now I am looking at one of our competitors in the market as they cover an anti-war rally on a college campus. They are providing two minutes to 60 people protesting the war. Nowhere in the piece is there anything about the fact that this small group represents an infinitesimal percent of the student body and that in fact there was a pro-war rally the same day on the same campus. Without the balance, the wrong image is conveyed.

In conclusion, the mayor’s office did ask the local media to call the day before Halloween anything but Devil’s Night. So what? Call it pre-Halloween fires, call it arson, call it string beans if you want to. The bottom line is that the facts were and always will be reported on this station.

There is nothing wrong with looking out for the image of the city you live in if the only compromise you make is reporting the facts fairly.

Editor’s note: Al Berman, the CBS senior producer referred to in this article, had this response: “Mort Meisner’s account of events has little resemblance to the truth.”

Berman said the report sent for their use was “not of network quality.” He said he called WJBK’s managing editor to ask for a “better” report which he had seen by satellite, but was refused. He said this request had nothing to do with not wanting a balanced report.

Berman said there’s a larger issue of whether media in a town with an image problem should be “toning” down coverage at the request of the mayor’s office. “WJBK won’t even use the term ‘Devil’s Night,'” he said.

 

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