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.

Filed Under: cbs news, journalism, scorpion, walter o'brien
Companies: cbs


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  1. icon
    NoahVail (profile), 14 Oct 2014 @ 6:15pm

    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.

    and
    "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.

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