CBS 2’s black eye: New firestorm stirs up old memories
Twenty-five years after WBBM-Channel 2 found itself embroiled in a national controversy over whether its news department was insensitive to Chicago's African-American community, the CBS-owned station is facing similar questions all over again.
In 1986, CBS 2 was the target of a black viewer boycott organized by Operation PUSH, the Chicago-based civil rights organization led by the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson Sr. At issue were the hiring and promotion of minorities and women, and complaints that the station’s news staffing and presentation reflected a racial bias.
Triggered by the demotion of a popular black anchorman (Harry Porterfield) to make room for a white anchorman (Bill Kurtis, who’d come back from a network gig in New York), the 11-month boycott brought about sweeping changes in management and coincided with a plunge in the ratings from which the station never fully recovered.
Today CBS 2 is at the center of another national firestorm with racial overtones, caused by a story that aired early in the morning of June 29 on a newscast watched by almost no one. Nevertheless, the incident has become a symbol of the way TV news can mislead viewers and perpetuate negative stereotypes.
The story itself was fairly unremarkable: Two teens had been wounded in a drive-by shooting on the South Side. What made it stand out was that it included a brief interview with a 4-year-old boy from the neighborhood who said he wasn’t scared by what he had witnessed. Asked by CBS 2’s freelance photographer what the youngster would do when he gets older, he replied: “I’m going to have me a gun.” Reaction from the news anchors was predictable. Steve Bartelstein called the boy’s comment “disturbing” and “scary indeed.” Susan Carlson added: “Hearing that little boy there, wow.” (Bartelstein subsequently left the station for reasons unrelated to the incident.)
Only after the piece had aired twice — during the 4:30am and 6:30am half-hours — was it learned that the 4-year-old’s comment had been taken out of context. A viewing of the unedited interview showed the reason the boy said he’d someday have a gun: “I’m going to be the police!” Staffers who saw it were said to be stunned and appalled. The piece was removed from the station’s website, and CBS 2 hoped the gaffe would go unnoticed.
Three weeks later, the incident came to light when the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education posted a story about it online. “Airing a video of the boy saying he wanted a gun that edits out the context simply reinforces stereotypes that African American males are violent — even preschoolers,” said Dori J. Maynard, president of the California-based nonprofit institute. It quickly became a cause célèbre across the country among journalism ethicists, the Society of Professional Journalists, the National Association of Black Journalists, the NAACP, and a number of other groups.
Widely condemned for interviewing a child at a crime scene and for editing his comment out of context, CBS 2 issued this statement: “We accept responsibility for the mistakes that were made, both in the reporting and editing of the story. The video of the child should not have aired. As soon as news management identified the problem, they took immediate steps to ensure that the video would not air in subsequent newscasts. In addition, we have followed up with our employees to make sure that we all have learned from the mistakes that were made.”
For those with long memories, the apology had a familiar ring to it.
On August 2, 1986, the general manager of CBS 2 effectively ended the black boycott against his station when he stood with Jesse Jackson before a public meeting of Operation PUSH and signed a “moral commitment” to atone for past mistakes and pledge greater sensitivity in the future.
A quarter-century later, it seems there’s still a way to go.