Television: Where Journalism Goes to Die

When we know little or nothing about a subject, it’s not hard for someone to snow us with misleading or downright false information.  For instance, if we’ve never been to Swaziland, an educated, well-spoken individual who just returned from there could tell us more or less anything about Swaziland and we would tend to believe him.

That’s what “60 Minutes” has been doing for over forty years (since 1968) — broadcasting slick, misleading, quasi-informative entertainment pieces disguised as “hard news.”  You could say that “60 Minutes” is to journalism, what Velveeta is to cheese.

Many years ago I wrote an article critical of a “60 Minutes” story on India.  I used to live in Punjab, and while I was no expert, I knew enough about the region to be stunned at how weirdly slanted the 16-minute story was.  I received a letter from a reader whose father had spent his career at NASA, complaining of the same thing.  He said his dad was “sickened” by how careless and misleading a segment on the space program had been.

And that’s how the show gets away with it, by depending on the viewing audience not knowing enough about the topics to judge their accuracy.  To a layman, all this fancy talk about liquid fuel, pounds of thrust, etc. is not only fascinating and informative, it seems downright educational.  But to a NASA scientist who knows what’s what, it comes off as slickly packaged bullshit.

There’s a seven and a half minute YouTube video making the rounds that demonstrates just how committed to Show Biz the program is, and how little it cares about the tedious business of presenting the news.  The video shows segments from previous “60 Minutes” episodes where the person being interviewed (e.g., a national or world political leader) abruptly removes their mic and walks off the set in anger or disgust.

The correspondents who conducted the interviews — Leslie Stahl, Steve Croft, Mike Wallace, et al — positively beam with pride at the outcome.  It’s as if getting a person to blow off an interview is not only a journalistic badge of honor, but proof that they are indeed hard-nosed reporters homing in on the Truth (instead of celebrity correspondents looking to increase the show’s ratings by creating conflict).

But all you have to do is examine the questions to see that they aren’t exactly trolling for deeper meaning.  For example, Stahl got Boris Yeltsin to terminate the interview when she asked a question about his mother, and she got President Sarkozy of France to leave when she asked a question about his wife.  Really?  Questions about their mommies and wives?  Wow, there’s some real journalistic digging for you.

Steve Croft got Senator Daniel Moynihan to walk off in disgust by asking him a loaded question about government bloat, attributed to a comment made by Robert Gates.  The overall impression you get from these walk-offs isn’t that we’re watching hard-nosed reporters doing their job, but rather that we’re watching well-oiled show biz performers taking their cows to market.

Evidence that “60 Minutes” was always more interested in entertainment than news was provided way back in the late 1970s when the program got caught using “inserts.”  Resident tough guy, Mike Wallace, would ask a guest a question, and get an answer.  Then, after the guest had left the studio, Wallace would be re-filmed asking the same question, and it was this second version that was “inserted” into the interview unbeknownst to the audience….or the guest.

But in this second version, Wallace has adopted an aggressive, finger-pointing, take-no-prisoners manner, in order to demonstrate just how tough and uncompromising the show’s correspondents were.  These CBS reporters weren’t just asking questions; they were demanding answers!  Pure show biz.

David Macaray is a playwright and author, whose latest book is How to Win Friends and Avoid Sacred Cows: Weird Adventures in India: Hindus, Sikhs, and Muslims When the Peace Corps was New. Everything you ever wanted to know about India but were afraid to ask. He can be reached at: Read other articles by David.