CBS News President Andrew Heyward, in a stinging rebuke, has accused one of his correspondents, Roberta Baskin, of “reckless and irresponsible” behavior.
Heyward was responding to a letter from Baskin in which the investigative reporter declared that the network had derailed her attempts to investigate Nike because of concern that it might affect the sneaker company’s decision to sponsor CBS’ broadcast of the Winter Olympics.
Taking issue with each of Baskin’s allegations, Heyward wrote: “Your rush to make charges of this kind, without either knowing or acknowledging the facts, is not only deeply distressing to me, but potentially injurious to the reputation of CBS News.”
Baskin said Tuesday she could not comment on her letter because “it was a confidential and internal communication at CBS. The letter really speaks for itself.”
The six-year CBS veteran is known for taking on big companies and has won two duPont and two Peabody awards. CBS submitted her October 1996 piece on poor working conditions and low wages at a Nike factory in Vietnam for a duPont Award.
Baskin’s letter, with copies sent to anchors Dan Rather, Bryant Gumbel and other top executives, exploded with maximum force at CBS. “That is so far off the wall,” said Jeff Fager, executive producer of the “CBS Evening News.” “I cannot imagine how she drew those conclusions. It is so far from reality.”
“Never, never was the word ‘sales’ mentioned to me. … It’s unthinkable that Andrew would ever mention that to me,” said Susan Zirinsky, Baskin’s boss as executive producer of “48 Hours.”
Some offered a more measured assessment. “I admire Roberta’s passion and her willingness to fight for what she thinks is right,” a CBS colleague said. “But sometimes she kind of crosses a line.” Several openly wondered whether Baskin, with a few months left on her contract, was looking to leave CBS.
Baskin’s two-page letter said she was “dismayed and embarrassed” at seeing CBS News staffers reporting from Nagano, Japan, in jackets emblazoned with the Nike logo. Heyward has since told his correspondents not to allow the “swoosh” logo to be seen on the air, although it has been visible in some taped pieces.
Baskin says that months after her 1996 piece on Nike - which included the allegation that some workers were beaten with the soles of shoes - Heyward vetoed a summer rebroadcast of it. Baskin says Zirinsky overheard Heyward and his deputy, Jonathan Klein, talking about a Nike letter to the CBS sales department that expressed concern about the two companies’ relationship at the upcoming Olympics.
Zirinsky disputed that. She said Heyward had asked her directly about responding to an internal Nike memo, which had made its way to CBS, complaining about Baskin’s story. But Zirinsky said it was a typical corporate complaint and had nothing to do with advertising.
Heyward, in an interview, called Baskin’s secondhand account of the conversation “completely fictitious.” He said the original version of her Nike report was “thin” and “we weren’t happy, it was difficult to bring to air.”
But Baskin argues that last fall, when she obtained a report prepared by Nike’s own auditors that documented abuses at the Vietnam plant, her bosses would not let her do a follow-up piece. “I was heartbroken to see that story on the front page of the New York Times that weekend,” she wrote.
The audit report, by Ernst & Young, said workers at the factory were exposed to carcinogens, that 77 percent suffered from respiratory problems and that employees were forced to work 65 hours a week for $10.
In his letter, Heyward said he had no involvement in that decision. And he said her Nike report was not rebroadcast because he and other executives did not think it was “strong enough” - although CBS did submit it for an award.
Lee Weinstein, Nike’s communications director, said “Roberta certainly has a point of view and her bias is well known.” But he said it is “completely untrue” that Nike tried to put any pressure on CBS News.