CBS News Sacrifices All Journalistic Integrity To Be Pure PR For CBS PrimeTime TV?

from the from-edward-r.-murrow-to-walter-o'brien dept

We’ve written a few times now about Walter O’Brien, the claimed inspiration for the CBS primetime TV show Scorpion. As our reporting has shown, a very large number of the claims about O’Brien’s life simply don’t check out when you look into the details, and in many cases appear to be flat out false. As we’ve said repeatedly — though people keep bringing this up — we don’t care at all about Hollywood folks exaggerating a “based on a true story” claim. What concerns us is (1) the journalistic integrity of those engaged in promoting the false claims about Walter O’Brien for the sake of a TV show and (2) the fact that O’Brien has been using this to promote his own business, which may lead people to giving money to him under questionable pretenses. Each time I write about him, more people who have known him in the past come out of the woodwork to repeat the same claims: nice enough guy, but always massively exaggerating nearly everything.

In this post, however, I want to focus on the first part of my concern: the journalistic integrity question. Three of the main articles often cited in support of O’Brien’s claims both come from “CBS News.” They’re actually local CBS affiliates, rather than the main CBS News, but they’re clearly trading on the CBS News brand, trust and credibility, and yet they’re so ridiculous as to raise serious questions about CBS’s journalistic standards.

First up, we’ve got an article from CBS 2 Los Angeles, with news “reporter” Crystal Cruz. Like many such stories, it brings up the bogus “4th highest IQ in the world” which has already been shown to be false in our last post. It also ridiculously claims that Scorpion is “a billion dollar business” which, again, there is no evidence to support at all. Then there’s this:

?The naval bases in Afghanistan, we predicted the drug lords could do biological warfare to the water supply to the base and put arsenic in the water supply to the base, and we predicted that three months ahead, before it happened,? O?Brien said. ?It changed military policy because of it, and that saved over 400 lives.?

As this is being discussed in the video version, it shows a map of Afghanistan, which only serves to reinforce the fact that Afghanistan is a landlocked country. Naval bases aren’t particularly useful there. Yes, there was a Navy presence — and the Marines are a part of the Navy — there really isn’t what most people would consider to be a naval base. But, more importantly, the US military also doesn’t use local drinking water because of their fear of contamination in the first place. They bring in bottled water for drinking. There are some reports (from UNICEF) of arsenic-contaminated water in Afghanistan, but it’s from local mining operations, not any reports of sabotage by “drug lords.” A reporter might have looked into all of this, but CBS wants to promote its TV show.

The Baltimore affiliate of CBS News, WJZ had a piece written by “reporter” Linh Bui repeating a bunch of claims about Walter that are dubious, at best. The whole “fourth highest IQ in the world” is there, of course. She also claims that Homeland Security found O’Brien in the 1980’s, despite it only coming into existence after 2001. She quotes O’Brien saying that he’s “stopped wars” without ever actually doing any fact checking to see if there’s any basis for that at all.

More recently, Boston’s WBZ, the local CBS affiliate, had its Emmy winning news anchor Kathryn Hauser claim that Walter’ O’Brien helped find the Boston marathon bombers. Again, there has been no evidence that we’ve seen to date that comes anywhere close to supporting that claim. There was a TV interview that suggested that the FBI likely used software that was like software that O’Brien created (though, we’ve yet to see any evidence that Walter actually has created such software in the first place). But over time, that claim has continued to morph into this claim that he actually helped find the bombers. You’d think, that with Hauser actually being in Boston she might have gone and asked local law enforcement if there was any truth to the claim at all. But she didn’t.

It’s pure speculation as to why she didn’t, but it’s hard not to notice that all three of these reports are posted to CBS News sites and the TV show is airing on CBS. Comments on the latter two stories have pointed out problems with O’Brien’s story, but no corrections or followups have been forthcoming. Because that would take actual reporting — and would contradict the narrative that parent company CBS is selling.

Two other stories that had financial ties to the show have both put up notices pointing out concerns raised about his claims, but neither has been able to find any followups. The first was an article by CNET’s Tim Stevens, which repeated some of Walter’s usual claims, but after a few people contacted him, he (unlike others) was quick to admit that he may have made a mistake in taking O’Brien at his word and appended an update to the story. Since then Stevens has requested followups with O’Brien, all of which appear to have been ignored. CNET is… owned by CBS. Then there’s Fast Company, where Susan Karlin wrote a similar profile of O’Brien, again repeating many of his claims. However, after people questioned it, she too was quick to add a note that many of O’Brien’s claims have been questioned and there are “inconsistencies” in his story. Karlin also notes that she has contacted CBS and O’Brien along with other show producers for comment, but appears not to have received any follow up either. As we noted in our last post, Fast Company produced the Techmanity conference where O’Brien was one of the featured speakers.

Still, I appreciate Stevens’ and Karlin’s willingness to admit that they may have been taken in by O’Brien’s claims, and it’s quite telling that it appears that O’Brien and CBS are unwilling to do any followups with those who question the details. The really questionable activity is by CBS News itself for simply refusing to acknowledge the questions and simply repeating questionable claims about O’Brien that help the CBS primetime lineup.

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Comments on “CBS News Sacrifices All Journalistic Integrity To Be Pure PR For CBS PrimeTime TV?”

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Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

But CBS has been known to put out some great journalism at times. Like 60 Minutes’ explosive expose on the tobacco industry, which never aired. (and even a quarter=century later, don’t think it ever leaked) Or how about Mike Wallace’s interview with Iranian president Ahmadinejad, which was heavily doctored and mis-translated (par for the course, he never actually said his famous quote “wipe israel off the map”).

And regarding the quaint notion of “journalistic integrity,” it’s looking more and more like the future of journalism is “native advertising” – which looks just like news but is really sponsored content.

NoahVail (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

“But CBS has been known to put out some great journalism at times.
Like … never aired … heavily doctored and mis-translated … he never actually said …”

Was your post satire? I genuinely can’t tell.

“it’s looking more and more like the future of journalism is native advertising”

Maybe a better word for it is fraud.

An editor who feels marketing is another form of journalism is like a dermatologist who feels cancer is an alternative form of healthy skin cells.

Tom Joad (profile) says:

Re: Pretty soon...

You know, obviously, what Gore actually said, and that he authored the High performance Computing Act of 1991, also known as the Gore Act, that gave us, among other things, the Mosaic browser and led to the development of the National Information Infrastructure and the funding of the National Research and Education Network. And what did he get in return? Abused.

Anonymous Coward says:


I’m sorry, but this was inevitable. All commercial news sources were required to become profit centers, long ago. At that point journalistic integrity went out the window and money became the primary motivation. They, almost all, now bear more resemblance to The National Enquirer, than to Edward R. Murrow. I now try to get good information from the web, but even that’s becoming difficult. I NEVER watch network “news”.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Inevitable

“I NEVER watch network “news”.”

I try to watch network news from time to time just to see what kind of half-truths, distortions, and outright lies are currently being fed to the unwashed masses. (yes, they do ocassionally touch on topics other than celebrity stories and various sensational crap)

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Inevitable

You’re not by yourself on this never watching network news. It long ago lost all journalistic integrity it ever had when they were allowed to be merged into larger corporations for larger areas. All of them now have a bias that can be plainly picked out from the tone of the news presentations.

Investigative reporting is dead in all but name. Editorial fact checking is dead which is pretty much the basis for this article. Investigative reporting is what keeps politicians honest, so corruption is rampant.

I no longer have faith in this country as it is run today. There’s good reasons for that but until money is taken out politics through legal bribes, it is never going to get better.

Henry Bowman says:

Re: Inevitable

Well, you are likely correct, but note that reporters always salivate to get news fist-hand from the White House, and they know if they write uncomplimentary stories about the B.O. Admin, they’ll be banished. So, the White House press corp mostly resembles Pravda or Izvestia. It’s not completely due to financial pressures, though that is always a factor.

GEMont (profile) says:

Re: Re:

You might try reading the whole article first.

In the first paragraph, the reasoning is explained in quite a bit of detail.
Improved reading comprehension eliminates many already answered questions.

(Third sentence, first paragraph.)

“What concerns us is (1) the journalistic integrity of those engaged in promoting the false claims about Walter O’Brien for the sake of a TV show and (2) the fact that O’Brien has been using this to promote his own business, which may lead people to giving money to him under questionable pretenses.”

What could possibly be more “technology-based” than the process of dissemination of FALSE information via electronic means, that is then picked up by other electronic media sources and repeated, until the public is convinced of the factuality of the lie?

SwagCoffin (profile) says:

Good job again Mike

It’s a bit uncanny but I left a comment on your last story earlier today about how the “news” media all reminded me of the story behind “The Emperor’s New Clothes”, then I see this new article kind of saying the same thing.

There is something that I’ve noticed, however, that makes this whole thing a lot worst – news story syndication. You have news aggregators, other news sites, and foreign language sites which essentially syndicate these stories that are expected to be fully vetted in the first place. Or, you have ho-hum “journalists” like Tim Stevens from CNET who will base their entire bullshit articles on these CBS sources. What ends up happening is that all of this garbage eventually gets picked up by mass-market outlets, and becomes fact over time.

tqk (profile) says:

Walter' O'Brien helped find the Boston marathon bombers.

… Boston’s WBZ, the local CBS affiliate, had its Emmy winning news anchor Kathryn Hauser claim that Walter’ O’Brien helped find the Boston marathon bombers.

Mike, I love TD, but dammit man, you’re killing me! Stop! Please stop! 🙂 [What’s the analogue to coke|nose>keyboard when beer’s involved?]

I’ve never seen the show, and now know I never need to thanks to your reports. This just gets dumber, and dumber, and dumber, …

My $deity, Hollyweird gets more ridiculous every day.

GEMont (profile) says:

Re: O'Brien

“The Marine Corps is one of two Naval services.”

Interesting attempt at a detour, however, if you admit that the Marines are one of the two NAVAL SERVICES, then you have just admitted that the NAVY is composed of 2 parts, one of which is the Marines.

ie “Marine Corps is part of the Navy”

Is it the word “CORPS” that you’re basing your argument on?

If so, that’s a nit, mister picker and does nothing to improve the message.

GEMont (profile) says:

The Truth Free Press is now part of Hollywood

It appears, to me, that CBS has taken the ruling by the courts in the FOX TV case – that television has no mandate for honesty, and that there is no law against telling lies on TV – and extended it into the real world.

Since its a TV network that is telling these tales of the unknown genius (to promote a television show), CBS lawyers have likely discerned that there is no law against a television news show doing this sort of marketing either.

Like the NSA, FBI, CIA, and the USG in general, Hollywood is simply running this scam on the “But its all legal!!” wagon.


Nate Whilk (profile) says:

news reliability

“CBS News Sacrifices All Journalistic Integrity To Be Pure PR For CBS PrimeTime TV?”

That assumes it ever had any integrity.

Knoll’s Law of Media Accuracy: Everything you read in the newspapers is absolutely true except for the rare story of which you happen to have firsthand knowledge. –Erwin Knoll, editor, “The Progressive”

“Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper. Truth itself becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle.” –Thomas Jefferson, letter to John Norvell (June 11, 1807)

momoftype1 says:

not suprized

So I’m not even sure I believe the claim he is the 4th, my ex had an idelic memory and had an IQ of 197, is a classic hacker and knows more about computers and hacking than he does about human interactions. If the government never hired him why would they hire Walter? I don’t doubt it’s based off of people like my ex and wallet but CBS is just creating publicity

Bruce Webster (profile) says:

Wait, what?

Not to pile on, but the archived Scorpion web page linked to in your earlier article does not read like the professional, intelligent summary of someone with an IQ of 197 and expertise in multiple esoteric subjects — it reads like really bad Mary Sue fanfic. I have to give him points for being able to bamboozle CBS and quite a few other news organizations, but seriously?

Matthew says:

The Real Damage Caused by Walter O'Brien

Consider this…
Have you ever wondered why former spies or retired intelligence operatives (in any agency) rarely disseminate their experiences in the media? You’d think with the abundance of international crisis and political drama, these ‘insiders’ would be crucial to telling the many stories of past covert operations. –And these stories do eventually get told…but many years after they occurred, and only after a government declassifies such information. The first stories that come to mind are those that formed the basis for the films “Argo” and “Charlie Wilson’s War”. The protagonists in these movies were anti-heroes…they represent the kind of men who were honest, loyal and very committed to accomplishing their missions at all costs (sometimes resulting in tragedy…not all missions are a success, unlike in Hollywood). There is one more trait almost constant with each and every service member in the intelligence community: Keeping secrets.
Walter O’Brien’s almost profound lack of discretion, coupled with an almost laughable desire to exaggerate the facts, breaks one of the most treasured rules of participating in the intelligence fraternity: You never, ever violate your vow to divulge information that has otherwise been deemed “classified” or “top secret”. If this rule is broken, people’s lives may be at stake. Imagine what may have happened to the Iran Hostages who were held for many months AFTER the CIA (and Canada) managed to rescue six embassy workers in the most extraordinary of ways (as depicted in “Argo”) if the CIA (and any of their many collaborators) began bragging about the success of their operation. Even worse, imagine the potential fallout if a hotheaded egomaniac like Walter O’Brien not only disclosed the details of the op, but exaggerated the facts.
Here’s my point. I could care less what TV show is being peddled here, and anyone who takes Hollywood at its word is a fool. The second Walter began talking about participating in all these foreign operations (namely, in Afghanistan), I knew he was full of shit because nobody in their right mind would ever say something like that…ESPECIALLY to brag about it. In other words, the only reason a story like that would reach the airwaves prior to declassification is if a controversy arose amid chaos…like the wiretap scandal or the CIA operative WH leak. As we all witnessed, the government doesn’t take too kindly to former employees or contractors who shoot their mouth off about secret operations, especially operations that have taken place recently OR put people’s lives at risk. Walter obviously has ZERO government experience, because he would understand the potential ramifications of sharing sensitive information or experiences.
Another point: I think we all have met at least one person in our lives who was so ‘over-the-top’ in telling stories and life experiences, anyone around him just laughed and absolutely nobody took him seriously. My first experience was when I was first baptized as a 8-year-old boy and I was asking a fellow student at school whether he had ever been baptized, and he said, ‘Oh yeah, I’ve been baptized like five times already!’ Confused, my mom explained to me that he was lying to me. When I asked her why he lied, she simply stated that he wants people to think he is better than everyone else…and, more importantly, his words were not caused or provoked by anything I said or did (which was a load off my shoulders). I never understood why anyone would claim such ridiculous facts…people who are chronic liars are so wrapped up in their own lies that its quite possible they can no longer discern fact from fiction. –And they tell their ‘tales’ without any thought to those who could be potentially harmed or offended by them. I’m absolutely sure that any member of the intelligence community who has heard or read this FRAUD’s words knows INSTANTLY that he is full of shit…and, because of their loyalty and commitment to their trade; they LOATHE this asshole for attempting to connect a TV Show with what is really happening in the REAL world. It’s like every story he tells can be traced to some former work of fiction stylized in the same way he shares his stories. The way he expresses his ‘regret’ for causing the deaths of others is intolerable and his words lack any measure of solace or empathy. No man who’s lost another in battle would ever say anything like that…EVER.
I agree with the notion that this issue CAN NOT be swept under the rug. The choice CBS made to promote his lies (particularly, in relation to real-world events – the Naval Afghanistan Base or pre-Homeland Security encounter, notwithstanding…man, those were really, really stupid) is dishonorable and a disgrace. There are many men and women who work their asses off every day to combat terrorism, hackers, etc and – let me tell you – it is a SERIOUS and NEVERENDING fight, with many setbacks and unexpected casualties. (I know firsthand, but don’t take MY word for it…I don’t need you to – unlike Walter.) The sooner CBS owns up to their mistake in vetting this guy, the sooner the record can be set straight.
The real tragedy here is Walter O’Brien. A con is a con. He is a FAKE, a LOSER, an absolute insult to any professional in the intelligence community. The truth almost always comes out about most anything these days, especially if it is controversial…and if this much truth about Mr. O’Brien has emerged in only the first couple of months of “Scorpion’s” CBS release, imagine the shit that will pile up over the course of a full season. Seriously, it’s like that saying, ‘If you see one rat, there’s a hundred more you don’t see.’ I have no doubt that, come May, we will look back at these October discussions and ponder, ‘Wow, if we only knew then what we know now…’
Finally, Walter O’Brien lied on an official immigration document to gain entry and residence in the United States. As far as I’m concerned, the focus of any effort to expose Walter O’Brien should center on what consequences, if any, were directly caused by his fabrications. Regardless, his false statements on an official government document should warrant his immediate revocation of his Green Card, followed by his quick deportation. –And then, he should never be allowed to return to our country. Just think, someone was denied a visa in favor of this asshole. That pisses me off.

Matthew says:

One more thing...

The ONLY reason I stumbled upon this story was thanks, in large part, to the existence of Wikipedia. Admittedly, my sessions online (both work and personal) often sail in and out of Wikipedia almost continuously. I know many facts and accounts found there are NOT accurate, but I also know they really do strive for transparency, and that’s why they let you know if the information you’re reading is controversial and actively disputed.

When I saw an ad for the Scorpions TV Show, I was curious to read up on Walter because (and ONLY because) CBS stated that the series was based on a true story. -And my interest was REALLY piqued when I read that people were disputing his claims…which, thanks to Wiki reference links, led me to these articles featured on (Excellent reporting, Mike!) Otherwise, I would have relied on CBS and their news media to fill me in on this guy, and who knows how long it may have been before I learned about these deceptions?

I don’t like to be duped (does anybody?), and even though my admiration for Water lasted only the time elapsed between watching the TV Advertisement and clicking on Walter O’Brien’s Wikipedia page, I am thrilled that nobody was trying to make me believe anything that wasn’t true.

Not only do I admire these articles, but I really appreciate the tenacity and continuity of journalists who made it their mission and responsibility to UPDATE Walter O’Brien’s Wikipedia page clearly…by describing this scandal both in the opening paragraph AND with its own heading towards the bottom of his Wiki profile).

So, Thank you for making sure Wiki was updated accordingly.

steve says:

the pot calling the kettle..

You are concerned with journalistic integrity yet spare nothing in leading readers down the path you want them to go down rather than be objective. I do not know mr Obrien nor do I care, someone overinflating their ego for television. have you never seen a presidential debate? I offer up to you as evidence of your complicity, the following. you use phrases to show incomplete or misleading information, such as “appear to be flat out false” something cannot appear to be flat out false it either is or it isn’t. You wrote “there really isn’t what most people would consider to be a naval base.” Which people? people like you or other people? You write,”the US military also doesn’t use local drinking water” Which you never really checked your facts. Many long range patrols cannot carry enough drinking water and do use local water. Also the bases use local water for showering and washing, etc. Arsenic infected water in the shower would get in the mouths and orifices of the soldiers. You said that he could not have been found by Homeland security because it did not exist in he 80’s. Since, U.S. Northern Command became the de-facto head of Homeland security , which is just a grouping of hundreds of agencies that existed prior to the 80’s. People normally refer to the name of a company or organization now vs when they started. Unfortunately your series of articles are filled with inaccuracies and extreme amounts of assumptions that YOU make.
Sorry but even if CBS has done what you say, you most certainly have too.

hayden ford says:

lets end this

what is wrong with all of you, yes it quotes its based on a real story and the real Walter is not who he claims but its a god dam television show so take you heads out of your asses a sort your life out, because if all you can do is complain and criticize something which don’t really matter then you need to get a life. If your to stubborn and vain that you have to focus on some other persons life because yours is so f*****g perfect then your wrong.

hayden ford says:

lets end this

what is wrong with all of you, yes it quotes its based on a real story and the real Walter is not who he claims but its a god dam television show so take you heads out of your asses a sort your life out, because if all you can do is complain and criticize something which don’t really matter then you need to get a life. If your to stubborn and vain that you have to focus on some other persons life because yours is so f*****g perfect then your wrong.

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