Story Publication logo December 17, 2013

Tick Tock, Tick Tock

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Marvin Kalb, resident senior adviser at the Pulitzer Center, has covered U.S. foreign policy for...

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60 Minutes used to be the gold standard of network magazine programs. Don Hewitt was the executive producer, and Mike Wallace was the major anchor. For many years, they produced outstanding programs. Now, suddenly, 60 Minutes is under fire. Questions are being raised about its work. "What's Wrong with 60 Minutes?" asks one blog. Another headlines its story "'60 Minutes' Is Getting Shredded for Its 'Embarrassing' Report on the NSA." What's wrong, indeed?

Last month, one of the program's rising stars, Lara Logan, who fearlessly covered the Afghan war for CBS, winning plaudits and prizes along the way, was abruptly put on a leave of absence following an internal network memo that questioned her reporting on the terrorist Benghazi attack as "deficient in several respects." Her producer, Max McClellan, was also put on leave. Their story, widely criticized as poorly sourced, was based on a misleading and inaccurate account by a security guard.

The chairman of CBS News, Jeff Fager, who is also executive producer of 60 Minutes, accepted ultimate responsibility. "I pride myself in catching almost everything, but this deception got through and it shouldn't have."

One would have imagined that, once burned, 60 Minutes would bend over backwards to avoid another embarrassing story—in fact, would run a series of investigative pieces reminiscent of the Wallace era to prove to a new crop of Web skeptics that 60 Minutes remains master of the magazine documentary. But, though a number of good pieces have run since the Logan embarrassment, 60 Minutes tripped once again—first, by running a Charlie Rose interview with Amazon founder Jeff Bezos that critics regarded as fawning and promotional; and then, on Sunday, by broadcasting John Miller's exclusive interview with Gen. Keith Alexander, the director of the controversial National Security Agency (NSA), that instantly attracted blistering criticism for a number of reasons, most prominently that Miller's interview was as soft as Rose's.

The New Yorker's Ryan Lizza, fresh off his own hard-hitting essay on the NSA, tweeted, "Wow, the 60 Minutes piece about the NSA was just embarrassing. Kudos to the NSA communications staff. You guys should get a raise."

Jay Rosen, a professor at New York University, wrote, "Terms like 'puff piece' and PR victory don't say enough. The more I think about it, the more remarkable last night's '60 Minutes' seg seems."

James Bamford, a respected expert on the NSA, snapped angrily, "60 Minutes has become 60 Morons." He explained that 60 Minutes had asked for his help, but he declined, because "it sounded like a puff piece, and it was."

Glenn Greenwald, Edward Snowden's only reliable contact with the outside world, predictably blasted Miller and CBS. "That 60 Minutes access-for-uncritical-reverence NSA propaganda piece was a new low for US journalism," he wrote.

Media critic Tim Karr added a supporting tweet, "If you thought the Lara Logan debacle was new low for @60Minutes, watch last night's NSA whitewash. Not a single skeptical voice."

One reason might be that NSA "minders" were present during Miller's interview with Alexander. At one point, Alexander asked for a "time out," perhaps because Miller had posed a tough question and Alexander needed guidance. If so, viewers should have been told so they would have had a better understanding of the context. More likely, the questions that viewers did hear—soft, polite, hardly probing—were typical of those asked throughout the interview. (One such softball: "One of the Snowden leaks involved the concept that NSA had tunneled into the foreign data centers of major U.S. Internet providers. Did the leak describe it the right way?")

Another reason might be that Miller, who began his NSA segment by acknowledging that he once worked for the director of National Intelligence, said, more interestingly, that he believed the anti-NSA critics have had their chance to lambast the NSA and that the agency now deserved time on network television to offer an unchallenged rebuttal. In this scenario, Miller would ask the questions—"hardest questions we could find," he said—and "then spend a couple of minutes listening."

Here's a hard question: Since when did 60 Minutes consider itself the place for official rebuttals? By what standard of journalism did 60 Minutes decide that the NSA's critics had had their say and now it was time for the agency to have its say—and to have it on CBS?

Obviously, CBS thought it was going to be praised for getting its cameras into the NSA, a spy agency, as it has often been described. Just as obviously, CBS had to pay a price for this exclusive. Not in money—worse. Miller, who, according to a number of reports, will soon take a job for incoming New York Police Commissioner Bill Bratton, would not interview anyone skeptical of NSA activities. The 60 Minutes piece would be an NSA show.

What's clear from this episode is that 60 Minutes is not facing another Lara Logan embarrassment. Miller did not get his facts wrong; he just did a story on 60 Minutes that should never have been on 60 Minutes. It was a promotional piece, almost by his own admission. In addition, the CBS Evening News with Scott Pelley did a story on the 60 Minutes Miller piece to help promote it, as though it were an exceptional exclusive, which it was not.

In a funny way, all of this fresh criticism can be seen as a compliment. People expect 60 Minutes to be a place on the dial for tough questioning and rigorous reporting. When it does anything less than that, it opens itself to snap judgments that may be unfair but should not be surprising. It should, though, suggest strongly that CBS has further need for continuing self-examination.

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