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Media Literacy Review
Center for Advanced Technology in Education - College of Education - University of Oregon - Eugene

CBS and Electronic Fakery

Bill Walsh, Contributing Writer

Did you watch New Year's Eve coverage from Times Square in New York? If you watched on CBS, you saw something more than the birth of a new year; you saw the dawn of a downright frightening decision by CBS News to alter reality - live. They showed what wasn't there. CBS used new digital technology to insert a CBS billboard over two actual signs in Times Square (which happened to be advertising Budweiser and competitor NBC).

Yes, I know that the old phrase "seeing is believing" has long ago been discarded in our hi-tech video world, but this is different. Not only is the technology better and more realistic-looking, but its use on news shows is particularly troubling.

You know that yellow line they show in football games on TV to show the first down marker? That's probably the best example of this new digital technology. If a player walks over that yellow line, it stays in the background, just like it was painted onto the field. Only it's not. It's inserted digitally.

And it's not a big deal in football games or ads. In fact, it actually helps when you're watching the game, but its use on a news program is a different matter entirely.

It's been used almost daily on the CBS Early Show since Nov. 1, making it look as if there's a CBS ad on the General Motors Building and other surfaces where none really exists. Its use in the Times Square New Year's Eve broadcast, however, marks the first time a "hard news" show used the technology to alter coverage of a news story. This makes it a very big deal.

Although all of the big TV networks have access to this new digital technology, CBS is the only one using it. NBC, ABC, and CNN refuse.

Sources report that there's some controversy over its use, even within the CBS News division.

A spokeswoman for CBS news defended its use, arguing that, "Times Square is full of billboards," and asserting that CBS did nothing more serious than "decorating the set" from which Dan Rather was broadcasting.

The president of CBS News, Andrew Heyward, admitted that there had been "vigorous debate" within CBS before its use, but said that it was "a whimsical and creative way to display our logo in various and unlikely places." Whimsical? Creative? And this from a news division president?

Unfortunately, Heyward's boss, CBS Television president Leslie Moonves, not only agrees with him, but pledges further use of this reality-altering technology. "Anytime there's an NBC logo up on our network, we'll block it again," he promised. Dan Rather disagrees (in retrospect). It was "a mistake," he says. "There is no excuse for it. I did not grasp the possible ethical implications of this and that was wrong on my part. . . I'm troubled that this was done."

Troubled? Troubled, Dan?

I'm outraged!

It's fakery. Deception. CBS News showed us something on live TV that wasn't there. They altered the background of a breaking news shot, took out something that WAS there and put in what they wanted us to see. (George Orwell, here we come!)

CBS claims that this new technology (so far) has only been used to insert CBS logos and billboards into pictures - never paid advertising. At least not yet.

I'm not a purist about everything - just some things. If they want to paint an electronic line on a football field, fine. They can even have Fred Astaire dancing with a vacuum cleaner or Forest Gump meeting President Kennedy if they want. Those things can be whimsical and creative. Nobody actually believes that they are real. We know that all media is a construction.

But messing with the news is different. Electronically changing the background for a live broadcast is not merely whimsical or creative; it's unethical.

It's dangerous. It's scary. It's wrong.

You know, the ironic thing about this coming from CBS News is that Walter Cronkite, long-time CBS news anchor, used to regularly be considered "the most trusted man in America," and used to end his nightly newscasts with "And that's the way it is." His old network is now showing us stuff that isn't there, hiding what is, and is showing a scene that isn't.

Welcome to the brave new world of 2000.