This is a column I have put off for weeks, because it makes me sad to write it. And ultimately, it begs an answer, which I am not sure I have.
But with the year ending, I can no longer avoid it. After decades of writing about television and media, this is the year that I have lost faith in two TV news institutions in which I have long believed: “60 Minutes” and CNN.
Actually, it was more than believed in the case of “60 Minutes.” The CBS newsmagazine was true north on the compass of TV journalism for me — proof that doing good journalism could also be good business in the world of commercial TV.
As is usually the case with loss of faith, it didn’t happen overnight.
These days, everyone is ripping “60 Minutes” for the Lara Logan report on Benghazi that it had to retract in November, the infomercial-like report Charlie Rose did earlier this month with Jeff Bezos about his drone delivery plans for Amazon, and correspondent John Miller’s in-the-tank piece last week on the National Security Agency.
In the case of the latter two, it wasn’t just that they were beneath the usual standards of “60 Minutes,” they were beneath the standards of shows like “Access Hollywood” or “Entertainment Tonight,” which will do anything to gain access to people they think viewers will tune in to see. At least, with the Hollywood shows they make no pretense of doing journalism.
But the seeds of trading integrity for access were sown long before this year at “60 Minutes.” After decades of celebrating the newsmagazine, which I regularly described as the most successful show in the history of TV because of its long record of commercial and journalistic success, I started questioning it in 2008 shortly after the election of President Barack Obama.
The process began with a piece reported by Steve Kroft that ran within days of Obama’s election. After referencing Obama’s description of his inner circle as “the best campaign team ever assembled in the history of politics,” Kroft told viewers that he and his producers “sat down” with that group in a hotel suite in Chicago 90 minutes after the president-elect had finished his acceptance speech in Grant Park.
I wondered privately at the time what price “60 Minutes” paid for such exclusive access to David Plouffe, David Axelrod, Anita Dunn, Robert Gibbs and the president-elect.
But it took a series of soft “exclusive” interviews by Kroft with Obama in 2009 before I started publicly questioning the arrangement.
In September 2009, I wrote about Obama again “returning to the friendly confines of ‘60 Minutes,’ and I complained about Kroft letting “the president control the conversation.”
“I now think [Kroft and the producers] are walking up to the line at which the broadcast is letting itself be used for political purposes,” I wrote.
And then, I described how Kroft crossed the line by allowing Obama to attack the cable news channels for contributing to a lack of civility in public discourse without questioning the president about the way Team Obama was using the airwaves for similar attacks on the media and political opponents.
The newsmagazine that debuted in 1968 had long played this kind of softball game when it came to celebrity profiles, but not with a president who was regularly using the telecast as a political tool. To me, that’s as serious an abrogation of journalistic duty as there is — especially when you are one of the 10 most popular shows on TV with an audience that regularly tops 10 million viewers a night.
That’s when “60 Minutes” started down the slippery slope that brought it to NSA headquarters last Sunday and its embarrassing interview by the acquiescent Miller with Gen. Keith Alexander, the agency’s director. Alexander was allowed the kind of unchallenged leeway one might expect for a government official in a totalitarian state on government TV as he assured his audience that everything his agency was doing was only for the protection of its citizens.
The day after the interview aired, a federal judge termed the NSA’s sweeping collection of personal data “almost Orwellian.” The judge added that it “almost certainly” violated the Fourth Amendment against unreasonable searches and seizures.
I don’t know how you undo the damage “60 Minutes” has done to itself in the last two months. It clearly seems bent on ignoring — even stonewalling — any kind of serious inquiry.
Politico reports that Logan and her producer, Max McClellan — who have been on leaves of absence since Nov. 27 — could be back in early January. CBS News has yet to explain how the pair managed to be so badly fooled by the lies of a security contractor who said he was there the night in 2012 when four Americans were killed at a diplomatic compound in Libya.
The newsmagazine has experienced dark days before. In 1995, founder and then executive producer Don Hewitt knuckled under to corporate pressure and killed a piece detailing how the Brown & Williamson tobacco company ignored data on the dangers of cancer.
A version of the piece ultimately ran after the information “60 Minutes” had refused to broadcast was published elsewhere. That sad chapter in the show’s history is chronicled in the 1999 docudrama “The Insider,” starring Russell Crowe.
Hewitt, who died in 2009, was one of my heroes of broadacst news, and I believe he ultimately righted the "60 Minutes" ship, leaving it in relatively safe harbor by the time he retired.
But the one-after-another sequence of mistakes in the past couple of months suggests something deeper is now at play — a senior management team that has lost its way and has stopped listening to anyone outside the bunker.
Barring any more Benghazi-like debacles, the ratings will probably hold for “60 Minutes.” But not my faith in its journalism. That’s gone.
I am feeling pretty much the same way about the Cable News Network after watching it under the leadership of Jeff Zucker since January — even though I never admired it nearly as much as “60 Minutes.”
And CNN doesn’t have the comfort of strong ratings. It is third behind Fox News and MSNBC — behind MSNBC!
“CNN remains our last best hope for journalism on cable TV,” I wrote in November 2012 when Zucker’s hiring was announced. “And by that, I mean the kind of reporting and analysis that serves democracy by providing viewers and citizens with sound information that they can trust and use to make decisions about their lives. … This is a decision that truly matters — not just for CNN and Time Warner, but for the future of TV journalism.”
Are those not the words of someone who wants to believe?
But outside of hiring Jake Tapper away from ABC News and giving him a weekday show at 4 p.m., Zucker has been a disappointment.
His prime-time lineup is a mess with little or no consistency, no discernible standards and no flow from show to show.
And the one early-evening program he introduced, a new version of “Crossfire” featuring fake debates between such Washington types as former Republican Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and one-time Obama spin doctor Stephanie Cutter, couldn’t be more wrong for this moment in American life.
At a time when Washington is hated for the gridlock caused by left-right fights between self-serving politicians, Zucker introduces a nightly show featuring some of the poster people responsible for that profound discontent.
I used to believe in and ferociously defend what I thought of as the high end of TV news. But I don’t have a fast answer anymore as to where TV viewers should turn for trustworthy information.
As I’ve written extensively in this column and my “Z on TV” blog this year, the PBS “NewsHour” is a shell of what it used to be. It’s not even doing what I would consider news these days.
You tell me.
Yeah, that’s me in corner — losing my religion as 2013 comes to an end.
Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun