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Warning signs

When we first learned of CBS' virtual sleight of hand during its millennium coverage, we were troubled. Along with the champagne, CBS served up some sham ads by electronically replacing the content on Times Square billboards with computer-generated plugs for itself. Giving viewers a reason to doubt what you are showing them during news coverage of an event raised serious ethical issues and struck us as a dangerous precedent. It still does. Those faux first-down lines in NFL games are one thing, but this crossed a whole different kind of line, to potentially damaging effect. At the time, CBS corporate was somewhere between defensive and defiant, apparently seeing nothing much wrong with the practice and vowing to do it again; newsman Dan Rather was a notable exception, calling it a mistake.

Turns out the people whose billboards got the virtual hosing weren't happy either and have sued CBS for trespass and taking of property. It seems to us that the technology has outrun the law on this issue, as it did with the early Internet hacking, so CBS may be in the clear legally, if not ethically. But as a major player in the billboard business itself, the CBS corporate family ought to know that a billboard in Times Square at New Year's is being bought for more than just the craning necks of the tourists. We don't know which way this case will go; however it goes, it should be a sign to CBS that this is dangerous territory, especially in newscasts. We've got a sign for CBS: Keep Out!