Eric Engberg passed away last week at his retirement home in Palmetto, Florida. The former CBS News correspondent was 74.
Depending on your perspective, Mr. Engberg was either an accomplished and revered member of the Fourth Estate, or a journalistic hack, the embodiment of what’s wrong with today’s news media.
Not surprisingly, many of Engberg’s peers described him in glowing terms. Dan Rather, anchor of the CBS Evening News during much of Engberg’s career at the network, called him “one of the best TV correspondents of his generation, “tough but fair, and that rarity: a hard-nosed reporter with a sense of humor.”
Mr. Engberg was also praised as an innovator. During the early 1990s, he created a segment called Reality Check that sought to uncover the real truth behind changes and counter-charges leveled during a presidential campaign. After the race ended, the segment often targeted government waste and corruption. Memorable exposes included his report on an $18 million subway built to carry Senators a few hundred yards from their offices to the U.S. Capitol, and an unnoticed change in federal election laws that allowed members of the house to buy radio ads with taxpayer money.
In 1998, Engberg aired his most famous report, presenting compelling evidence that the Vietnam veteran buried in the Tomb of the Unknowns was actually Air Force 1Lt Michael Blassie, who was shot down in 1972. The segment resulted in the exhumation of his remains, a positive identification, return to his family, and reburial at a national cemetery in St. Louis, not far from his boyhood home.
Obituaries of Mr. Engberg mention the DuPont-Columbia Award he won for the Blassie segment; his willingness to pose tough questions to politicians (and pressing them when they refused to comment) and that distinctive, booming voice. At one point in his career, Engberg was asked to take a hearing test because the VU needles pegged whenever he recorded a voice-over or stand-up. “You’re not deaf,” the audiologist told him, “just loud.”
But there’s at least one, important element missing from recollections of Mr. Engberg’s career. During the 1996 presidential campaign, he delivered an infamous “Reality Check” on GOP candidate Steve Forbes and his plan for a flat tax. Ostensibly, it was supposed to reveal the flaws in Mr. Forbes proposal. But Engberg’s segment was nothing more than a hit piece, masquerading as fact-based journalism. A few days later, his colleague Bernard Goldberg took it apart, in an equally-famous op-ed published by The Wall Street Journal:
He starts out saying: “Steve Forbes pitches his flat-tax scheme as an economic elixir, good for everything that ails us.” Sure, the words “scheme” and “elixir” are loaded, conjuring up images of Doctor Feelgood selling worthless junk out of the back of his wagon. But this is nothing more than a prelude–warm-up material to get us into the right frame of mind.
The report shows Mr. Forbes saying the U.S. economy can grow twice as fast if we remove “obstacles, starting with the tax code.” Mr. Forbes may be right or wrong about this, so Mr. Engberg lets us know which it is. “Time out!” he shouts in his signature style. “Economists say nothing like that has ever actually happened.”
He then introduces us to William Gale of the Brookings Institution, who says: “It doesn’t seem plausible to think that we’re going to have a whole new economy or economic Renaissance Age due to tax reform.”
CBS News instructs its reporters and producers to identify people in a way that will help the audience understand any political bias they might have. We are told, for example, to identify the Heritage Foundation as “a conservative think tank.” I have done this on more than one occasion, myself. It’s a good policy.
But where was the identification of the Brookings Institution as “a liberal think tank”? Might that influence Mr. Gale’s take on the flat tax? Instead, Mr. Gale was presented to America simply as an expert with no tax ax to grind.
Mr. Engberg concludes his piece à la David Letterman by saying that “Forbes’s Number One Wackiest Flat Tax Promise” is the candidate’s belief that it would give parents “more time to spend with their children and each other.”
Can you imagine, in your wildest dreams, a network news reporter calling Hillary Clinton’s health care plan “wacky”? Can you imagine any editor allowing it?
You probably remember what happened next. CBS never reprimanded Mr. Engberg for his thoroughly biased report, and never issued an apology or correction. In fact, Dan Rather and the suits at CBS News saw nothing wrong with the segment. Mr. Goldberg, on the other hand, became personna non grata at the network; he vanished from the airwaves and narrowly escaped being fired. After sensitive negotiations, he was allowed to remain on the payroll until he became eligible for a pension. Engberg remained a regular contributor to the Evening News until he retired in 2003.
While he remained a pariah at network, Mr. Goldberg enjoyed something of a career renaissance after leaving CBS. His book that grew out of the op-ed, Bias, topped The New York Times best-seller list for many weeks and he’s won multiple Emmys reporting for HBO’s Real Sports. Engberg disappeared into retirement, resurfacing (briefly) last year for a public dust-up with Bill O’Reilly over conditions in Buenos Aires during the Falklands War. Both reported from there for CBS News; Mr. O’Reilly described riots in the Argentine capital, and claimed that other network staffers “hid in their rooms.” Engberg refuted those assertions, saying the city was “more of an expense account zone.”
Interestingly, O’Reilly’s recollections were largely supported by Don Browne, a former NBC bureau chief who went on to become an executive for the network and served as president of Telemundo before retiring in 2011. Engberg declined an invitation to appear on the air with O’Reilly, but he did make the rounds of other media outlets, repeating claims that the Fox News anchor embellished (or even lied) about his experiences in Buenos Aires.
Some of Mr. Engberg’s obits in the MSM mention his feud with Bill O’Reilly, but I haven’t found any that highlight his completely biased “Reality Check” on Steve Forbes. Hardly surprising; in less than three minutes of airtime, Engberg managed to provide an inadvertent “reality check” on the real state of network news and Goldberg’s subsequent critique helped hasten their decline. Not the sort of legacy that mainstream journalists want to recall in memorializing one of their elders.
ADDENDUM: In recounting the Engberg episode, Mr. Goldberg is always careful to note that he missed the segment when it first aired. The man who spotted the obvious bias in Engberg’s piece was Jerry Kelley, a building contractor from Alabama who was a friend of Goldberg’s. “You got too many snippy wise guys doin’ the news,” Kelley told him, suggesting that Goldberg take a look at the segment. The rest, as they say, is history.
Bernard Goldberg delivered the eulogy when Mr. Kelley passed away in 2014 at the age of 71. “Jerry Kelley changed the American culture,” he told the mourners, and it’s hard to disagree.
“Jerry knew more about bias and fair play than any of those journalistic “geniuses” did who put that piece of garbage about Forbes on the air back in 1996. And Jerry was a building contractor, not a journalist. Still, he saw the bias that the CBS News Washington correspondent who reported the Forbes story didn’t; that his producer didn’t; that the senior producer in Washington didn’t; that the top evening news producers at CBS News in New York didn’t; that the president of CBS News didn’t; and that Dan Rather, the anchorman and managing editor of the broadcast, didn’t.