For me, it was during the run-up to the 2004 Presidential Election.

My wife and I enjoy a weekend television program hosted by Charles Osgood that is titled “CBS News Sunday Morning”. It has a magazine format that includes political commentary on current events, but also some humor, human interest stories, and in-depth studies of people and places in America. It’s worth watching.

The contributors may not be familiar to you. Bill Geist does the “road show” segment of the program. He travels the country spotlighting the unusual and quaint. He brings a “David Letterman” feel to the show, in that his segments are a bit zany. One week you get to see a museum dedicated to tow trucks. Another week it’s a watermelon seed-spitting contest. It’s good fun.

The political commentary features Nancy Giles and Ben Stein. Their presentations are entertaining and enlightening, and sometimes quite poignant.

The one part of the show that we try not to miss is the ending segment. The program closes with footage of wildlife in various parts of the United States. It might be Sandhill Cranes in the Bosque del Apache or Bighorn Mountain Sheep in Colorado. Seasonal changes are highlighted, and it’s all done without background music. The audio is simply the natural sounds of the location being filmed. It makes you feel good to be in America.

One of the programs in 2004 included a look at environmental policy in the United States. It had an interview with Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton on a picnic bench in a National Park setting. She talked about balancing the needs of the public with the need to preserve the natural beauty of our parks. My overall impression was that it was a pretty good statement of the mission of the Department of the Interior, and it highlighted current challenges faced by the Department.

The program then switched to an opposing view of the subject.

The images shown were not of the opposing speaker, but of the problems associated with an environmental policy run amok. I remember hearing an off-screen voice talking about President Bush being the worst environmental president in United States history; that President Bush was personally destroying our American outdoors. Startling images were presented: the smoldering aftermath of a forest fire; logging equipment clear-cutting a forest; fish dying in a stream.

My wife was watching the program along with me. At the conclusion, I asked what she thought of the story, and was amazed at her answer. She thought it was a fair depiction of both sides of the issue.

I was stunned! What I had seen was an ambush. Secretary Norton had presented a rundown of current policy statements on the environment. The opposing view was inflammatory rhetoric making stinging accusations and personal attacks. It didn’t seem balanced to me at all.

The moderator didn’t follow up the “worst environmental president” accusation with any questions such as, “Who is the second worst, and who is the best”. Or, “What scale of measurement did you use to determine your rankings?” The accusations were unchallenged. They were accepted as fact.

I kept trying to understand what was going on with the segment. It was jarring. The rest of the program had followed the standard “Sunday Morning” format, yet this piece was extreme.

The forest fire images seemed familiar to me. I think they came from an earlier news piece that had shown damage from forest fires during the 2003 drought in the Western United States. My recollection was that the complete footage showed fire damage to an area that had not been thinned, and then panned to an area that had been thinned. The intent of the film had been to show that forests thinned of underbrush were less likely to be catastrophically hurt by forest fires. President Bush was pushing a forest thinning initiative at the time.

The dead fish footage also seemed familiar. I think it came from a story about Oregon farmers needing water for their land during the drought. The issue was that if water was taken from the river, fish would die, but that if the water wasn’t provided to the farmers, they faced financial ruin. It pointed out the difficult decisions that have to be made during times of drought.

The logging operations footage didn’t trigger any recent memories. However, it certainly left an impression of land being destroyed for the purpose of obtaining lumber.

I hate to say I’m obsessed by this particular segment within a “CBS News Sunday Morning” program, but it bothered me on several levels:

--Why did it appear so slanted to me, and yet my wife thought it was balanced?
--Why was it deemed appropriate for the “CBS News Sunday Morning” format?
--What was the intent of CBS?

It started me thinking about the packaging of our television programming.  I had heard stories of bias in the news, but hadn’t paid much attention to them. Was there something to them? Is there an agenda at play here?

I began to take notes.

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