When you know very little about a subject, it’s not hard for someone professing to be an “expert” to snow you with misleading or downright false information. For instance, if you’ve never been to Swaziland, a well-spoken individual who just returned from there could more or less tell you anything about Swaziland and you would tend to believe it.
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.”
Some years ago I wrote an article critical of a “60 Minutes” story on India. I used to live in Punjab, and while I was certainly no expert, I knew enough about the country to be flabbergasted at how superficially the 16-minute story was being presented. 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 topic to judge its accuracy. To a layman, all this fancy talk about liquid fuel, pounds of thrust, etc. is fascinating, informative, and 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 hard news. The video shows segments from previous “60 Minutes” episodes where the person being interviewed (e.g., 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, Bob Simon, Mike Wallace—positively beam with pride at the results. 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 hard-nosed reporters homing in on the truth (instead of celebrity correspondents looking to increase the show’s ratings by creating conflict).
All you have to do is examine their questions to see that they weren’t exactly trolling for state secrets. Not all of them were dumb, but some were ridiculous. For example, Stahl got Boris Yeltsin to terminate the interview when she asked a question about his mother, and got President Sarkozy of France to leave when she asked a question about his wife. Wow. Questions about their moms and wives? Now that’s real journalistic digging.
Steve Croft got Senator Daniel Moynihan to walk off in disgust by asking him an insipid 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. It’s that we’re watching show biz performers taking their cows to market.
Further evidence that “60 Minutes” is more about entertainment than news was provided in the late 1970s when the program was caught using a device known as an “insert.” It worked like this. The show’s resident tough guy, Mike Wallace, would politely ask a guest a question, and get an answer.
Then, after the guest had left the studio, Wallace would be re-filmed sitting in the same chair and asking the same question, but this time he’d ask it in an aggressive, finger-pointing, take-no-prisoners manner, in order to demonstrate to the audience just how tough and uncompromising the show’s correspondents were. Pure show biz.
DAVID MACARAY, a Los Angeles playwright, is the author of “It’s Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor”. He served 9 terms as president of AWPPW Local 672. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org