The news media enjoys nothing more than beating up its own. And Sixty Minutes is no exception. Joining in the gang bang is unfair. But anyone who has read my blog knows I’m unfair. So I’ll join the fray.
Since 60 Minutes’ debut 46-plus years ago in September 1968, I’ve missed very few segments. My affinity for the program is enhanced by the fact that several friends and acquaintances have worked with the show. Currently, two former colleagues during my ten year tenure as Senior Correspondent in CNN’s 50-member investigative unit are now award-winning 60 Minutes producers.
In the late 1980’s when I was Baton Rouge’s mini-Mike Wallace, the show’s then Executive Producer Don Hewitt opted not to hire me. Instead, I was recruited by CNN—the equivalent of the obscurity found in the federal Witness Protection Program. Don Hewitt, Mike Wallace and other 60 Minutes pioneers have since gone to the big network in the sky and the Sunday night staple has pretty much gone to hell.
An exception are segments produced by my friends, Graham Messick and Henry Schuster. Admittedly, I’m prejudice. But their journalism prizes supports my judgment. I only wish they were involved in producing Lara Logan’s Benghazi segment that was retracted because the principle source lied. The story apparently was not adequately fact-checked before airing.
Worse, Logan previously criticized the Obama Administration’s handling of Benghazi while speaking before a group in Chicago in October 2012 (a month after the terrorist attack). ”When I look at what’s happening in Libya, there’s a big song and dance about whether this was a terrorist attack or a protest. And you just want to scream, ‘for God’s sake, are you kidding me?’” In other words, she had a strong point of view before producing the segment—a no, no in responsible investigative reporting.
No doubt, many right-wingers share Lara Logan’s point of view—the most prominent being California GOP congressman Darrell Issa who has taken on the job of Republican ‘hit man” while obsessively trying to do in President Obama with endless investigations, including Benghazi.
Until he gained prominence in Congress, Issa was best known for beating criminal raps including multiple allegations of Grand Theft auto and an accusation of torching a factory he owned to collect a fire insurance policy that had been increased by more than 400 percent three weeks prior to the blaze. Issa is not the kind of guy you trust to buy a cup of coffee with your Platinum American Express card.
Neither do I trust 60 Minutes now, and certainly not Lara Logan. But my faith in the granddaddy of television news magazine shows has been deteriorating for years. It’s selection of stories has become predictable. A hard news piece, a softer story and a profile.
The investigative prowess of 60 Minutes has always been overrated. The show often steals the work of other reporters and tells the story better than the original version. In some instances, especially books being promoted by CBS-owned publishers, the authors will be interviewed as part of segments.
Such was the case in the retracted Benghazi story. The main interview and principle source, Dylan Davies, is author of The Embassy House, an account of the tale he related to Lara Logan. Though not disclosed in the segment, the book was published by Simon & Schuster, a CBS subsidiary. So much for full disclosure. The publisher has recalled the book from stores.
The question now is what happens to those responsible for the 60 Minutes debacle? Hopefully not the fate of 60 Minutes 2, the weekday spin-off that was abandoned after airing the true story of military malingering by George W. Bush while protecting the U.S. from an invasion by Mexico when he served as a pilot in in the Texas Air National Guard during the Vietnam War.
Turned out that CBS anchor Dan Rather and producer Mary Mapes were suckered by a counterfeit document purportedly outlining details of Bush’s misdeeds. Sloppy reporting. Overreaction by CBS which was under pressure from Republican bigwigs. And according to Mapes, the network is still trying to cozy up to the right-wing.
And that brings me to the headline of this post—my own experience with news magazine blunders. In 1998, our Special Assignment Unit produced a segment titled Valley of Death, more widely known as the Tailwind story. It was the premier piece on our new magazine program, NewsStand: CNN and Time on Assignment. The story accused the American military of using the nerve chemical Sarin during an evacuation in Laos of a super-secret army unit from that was overrun by North Vietnamese soldiers.
I was not involved in producing or reporting the Tailwind segment. But our boss assigned me the task of trying to save it after CNN came under attack from the Pentagon and national news media, which piled on the network in the same manner as happened to CBS following the Bush story and the Benghazi report. Unfortunately, our segment was beyond salvation.
However, my reporting uncovered information suggesting that the story may actually have been accurate in some respects, but inaccurate in identifying the secret military unit involved and the place where the nerve chemical was used—Cambodia, not Laos. But CNN wanted no part in following the story. I was told to forget it—a prelude to my early retirement five months later.
As I related in my memoir, Odyssey of a Derelict Gunslinger, an epidemic of shrunken testicles spread through CNN’s executive suites in the wake of Tailwind resulting in the firing of two producers of the segment, the resignation our boss, Pamela Hill, and the early exit of on-air correspondent Peter Arnett.
For those of you who have read this far, a couple of minutes later shouldn’t make much difference so I will include an excerpt of the book about the tiny balls of the folks running CNN at the time.
Twenty-five days after NewsStand’s disastrous debut, CNN President Tom Johnson fired April Oliver and Jack Smith. He also announced the resignation of Pamela Hill. The reasons were stated in a Tailwind critique.
“A decision was made by CNN to broadcast accusations of the gravest sort without sufficient justification and in the face of substantial persuasive information to the contrary.”
The report was co-authored by CNN General Counsel David Kohler and Floyd Abrams, one of the nation’s leading First Amendment lawyers. It was released so hastily, a speed typist may have been recruited to put it in final form. Kohler was an anomalous critic. He gave final legal clearance for the segment.
I agree there were serious flaws in the “exposé.” But April Oliver, Jack Smith, Dave Kohler and others reviewing the supporting material believed the story to be accurate. Sources were considered reliable, particularly Admiral Moorer. But faith in sources can be perilous. Oftentimes, journalists unconsciously discount exculpatory inconsistencies. A firing offense? In the imperfect craft of investigative reporting, mistakes happen. Indeed, CNN’s post mortem admitted as much on its first page.
“Our central conclusion is that although the broadcast was prepared after exhaustive research, was rooted in considerable supportive data, and reflected the deeply held beliefs of the CNN journalists who prepared it, the central thesis of the broadcast could not be sustained at the time of the broadcast itself and cannot be sustained now.”
“Now” was a Monday morning meeting of quarterbacks. The admission that April and Jack did their best but reached the wrong conclusions isn’t reason sufficient to ruin careers and reputations. They were casualties of an inordinate level of journalistic cowardice. Rather than retract and apologize for imperfect reporting, April and Jack were hauled to a sacrificial altar. It was a rush to judgment to protect the network’s image.
Peter Arnett, the on-camera face of Tailwind, survived the initial cleansing. But not without insult. His minimal involvement resulted in a sharp public rebuke from Tom Johnson, who said it was unconscionable for a reporter to front a story that he failed to research. The statement was remarkable in its ignorance. TV correspondents consistently parrot the work of producers. If all news personalities did their own reporting, 60 Minutes would be on the air about once a year.
Nobody knew this better than Tom’s co-executioner, Rick Kaplan. As a former Executive Producer of ABC’s Prime Time and other personality-driven news programs, Kaplan supervised high-profile journalists who were often parachuted into stories at the last minute. Yet, he made no effort to defend Arnett. Nor did he defend producer Jack Smith―the man who years before, gave him one of his first television jobs. Worse, Jack found out he was fired in a Special Assignment conference call. Despite a promise by Tom Johnson that Jack and April would have a chance to review the critique, the hatchet fell without so much as a courtesy call.
For all intents and purposes, NewsStand was history after the Tailwind episode. It continued on for a few months, but lacked any substantive investigative reporting. Presumably, 60 Minutes will survive the current scandal. That is good news. Even at its worst, it is still better than other magazine shows.
The bad news is 60 Minutes is now what it is.
John Camp’s critically praised memoir, Odyssey of a Derelict Gunslinger: A Saga of Exposing TV Preachers, Corrupt Politicians, Right-Wing Lunatics…and Me, is available at amazon.com in either book or Kindle format, and at independent bookstores. It offers plenty of laughs, inside secrets of TV “journalism” and brutal honesty about his battles with alcohol. The book is an account of a 30 year prize-winning investigative reporting career and the characters he encountered during the heyday of TV muckraking.