|CBS's Corporate Board Has Close Ties to Democrats|
As CBS launches an alleged probe into the circumstances surrounding the forged documents case, questions are being raised about the impartiality of the network's investigation given the political affiliations of some of the members of the board of directors of Viacom, the parent company that owns the network.
Noting that corporate governance experts say the directors of Viacom have no choice but to take a key role in probing CBS's use of fake documents about President Bush's military record, the New York Sun reported Tuesday that the political leanings of Viacom's board has raised new concerns.
The paper reviewed the political leanings and contribution history of the Viacom board and the company's senior management.
The Sun notes that Viacom's chairman and chief executive, Sumner Redstone, for example, is a self-described "liberal Democrat" who has been "a prolific donor to Democratic campaigns."
Moreover, of Viacom's 13 board members, fully eight contribute primarily to Democratic candidates and party committees, while another two other members of the board, Joseph Califano and William Cohen, both held Cabinet posts under Democratic presidents.
"The board needs to be involved, so to speak, prophylactically," a business ethics specialist at the Conference Board, Ronald Berenbeim, told the Sun
"The exposure to risk for Viacom, even though CBS News is just one of many things that it owns, is very substantial," he said. "There's substantial risk to a major business operation for which they have ultimate oversight and responsibility."
An attorney experienced in conducting the kind of independent investigation CBS has been said to have launched says the board members have a duty to make sure CBS's reputation is not tarnished any more than it already has been.
"Dan Rather is obviously an important person. He's part of the brand," lawyer Jeffrey Kaplan of Skillman, N.J., told the Sun. "A board's duty in this situation is somewhat uncertain because the facts are so unique. But at a minimum, given what's at stake for CBS, the board would want to be involved in this to ensure the independence and the professionalism of the investigation to be conducted, because if that doesn't happen then this asset of great value to the Viacom shareholder, meaning CBS, could be imperiled."
Viacom spokesman Carl Folta told the Sun the board has not discussed the forged-documents flap and is unlikely to do so. "They have not had any deliberations on this, board deliberations, and as a board are not handling the situation, which is being handled totally at the news level by CBS," he said. "At Viacom, we just don't get involved in the news division."
He added that the political contributions of board members were not unusual. "As private citizens, board members at Viacom and others make donations to political parties and candidates all the time," he said, avoiding the question of why the overwhelming preponderance of their donations end up in liberal Democrat campaign kitties.
But Viacom's critics insist that Sumner Redstone, who has been running Viacom for nearly 20 years, set the liberal course at CBS that led to the fake document debacle.
"Why did Dan Rather think he could get away with this or stonewall it? You look at Sumner Redstone's political contributions," Cliff Kincaid of the conservative press watchdog group Accuracy in Media, asked the Sun. "It's clear he's a major donor to the Democratic Party."
In the past six years, Redstone has given $50,000 to Democratic campaigns and party committees, according to filings with the Federal Election Commission. He gave the maximum $2,000 to Kerry's presidential campaign and supported Vice President Gore's 2000 presidential bid as well.
The only Republican candidates the Viacom chief has supported directly are Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, to whom he gave $2,000, and Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who received $1,000 from him. Redstone also made donations to a Viacom political action committee that splits its donations fairly evenly between the parties.
"Rather must have felt comfortable, not only because this is his bias but because he knew the parent company was comfortable with this kind of frontal attack on Bush," said Kincaid, whose group the Sun says has tangled with CBS for years about its liberal-leaning news and entertainment programming.
Redstone's daughter and possible successor, Shari, has given exclusively to Democrats in recent years, though not as prolifically as her father. She has contributed to Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, as well as to the Democratic National Committee, the Sun reported.
According to the Sun, other donors to the Democrats on the Viacom board include two Boston attorneys, George Abrams and David Andelman; a Manhattan investor, Philippe Dauman; the chairman of Bear Stearns, Alan Greenberg; a law professor at Yeshiva University, William Schwartz, and the president of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Patricia Stonesifer.
In July, Leslie Moonves and Thomas Freston replaced Mel Karmazin, a prolific Democratic donor, as chief operating officers of Viacom. In the 2000 presidential campaign Moonves, who oversees CBS, gave $1,000 each to Al Gore and Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut.
Freston, who the Sun reports is a "regular presence at Democratic fund-raising events in New York," kicked in $2,000 to John Kerry's campaign and also has given nearly $30,000 to Democratic groups and candidates in the past six years.
A business professor at Columbia Universtiy, Meyer Feldberg, told the Sun that he doubted the Viacom board members would jeopardize the company to advance their own political views.
"Redstone runs an incredibly outstanding organization," Feldberg argued. "I'm very sure that the chairman and CEO would not allow the board of the company to be compromised by individual political agendas."
He added that he doesn't expect the directors to take formal action in connection with the scandal, but he said he could not imagine they would ignore it.
"In this particular case, because of the personalities involved and the issue, it's like the elephant in the tent," he said.