What happened to 60 Minutes?
That’s the question many of the show’s viewers are asking themselves as the show winds down its worst year since the scandal that rocked CBS News nearly a decade ago and forced Dan Rather into retirement.
The program rankled critics on Sunday with a two-segment piece on the National Security Agency’s post-9/11 surveillance operations. This time, it was the reporter himself who raised eyebrows: CBS sent senior correspondent John Miller, who has flitted in and out of the law and intelligence communities throughout his career, to sit down with NSA chief Keith Alexander. Miller has served stints at the New York Police Department, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and with the director of National Intelligence. “Who better to report this story than John Miller, who, besides being a terrific reporter, is an expert on national security?” 60 Minutes spokesman Kevin Tedesco tells National Review Online.
The conflict of interest, though, was obvious: Miller himself acknowledged it at the outset of the segment. “Full disclosure,” he began, “I once worked in the office of the director of National Intelligence, where I saw firsthand how secretly the NSA operates.” Adding to the awkwardness of the scene, the New York Post reported the day after the broadcast that Miller is set to take a top intelligence or counterterrorism role with incoming NYPD chief Bill Bratton. Then there’s the fact that Miller featured no critics of the government’s surveillance programs in a piece that ran nearly 27 minutes; oohed and ahhed while he watched one of the agency’s code breakers solve a Rubik’s cube; and didn’t exactly pelt Alexander with hard-hitting follow-up questions.
“The sweet bouquet raises troubling conflicts-of-interest questions,” says former 60 Minutes producer Steve Glauber. Though Miller acknowledged one potential conflict, Glauber argues that 60 Minutes “failed to acknowledge the greater conflict,” which is that Miller will need the cooperation of the NSA and the broader intelligence community in the job he is reportedly set to take.
It’s been a rough year for 60 Minutes, which was forced to retract a report on Benghazi in October, launched an internal investigation in its wake, placed a star correspondent and her producer on leave, and then took fire for airing a love letter to e-commerce giant Amazon and its founder, Jeff Bezos, on the eve of Cyber Monday. The following day, Amazon’s sales surged to a record high. It was impossible not to conclude that Charlie Rose’s complimentary profile, which landed Amazon on the front pages of newspapers across the country, gave the site a boost.
For what? Bezos offered a provocative bit of news, that Amazon may deliver packages by drone. The Amazon CEO told Rose that futuristic prospect could become a reality within five years. Perhaps, but it’s equally plausible that he pulled off a brilliant public-relations stunt as Charlie Rose looked on. The Federal Aviation Administration bans all commercial use of drones and prohibits their use over populated areas, which poses a problem for Bezos’s vision. It will issue some preliminary rules for their use by the end of 2015, but the widespread adoption of the technology for commercial use is far off. Rose didn’t ask him about that, though.
Over the past year, the program has made it look as if there is virtually a quid pro quo: If you let 60 Minutes in on the inner working of your affairs, the show’s reporters will check their journalistic judgment at the door. In identical terms, Rose and Miller trumpeted the “unprecedented access” they gained to Amazon and the NSA, respectively. Inside one of Amazon’s factories, Rose did not conceal his admiration. “There is very little Amazon doesn’t have,” he said. “If you can do this with all of these products, what else can you do?” Surveying the factory, he gushed, “You guys can organize the world.” When Bezos unveiled the drone-delivery technology that won’t be ready for at least a few years, if ever, Rose’s response was brief: “Wow.” Questions about the controversies that have surrounded the company, from the conditions of its warehouses to its allegedly monopolistic practices, went unasked.
“60 Minutes used to do a lot of real Valentines to great cultural figures,” says Steven Reiner, a former producer for the show — “loving profiles of people who had earned the right to get the 60 Minutes treatment.” But, he adds, “when it gets turned to unquestioning adoration of certain individuals, certain enterprises, certain businesses” that would normally come in for tougher treatment from journalists, the show’s approach is more problematic.
That is happening more and more. Reiner says that this unquestioning adoration of people and entities that inherently demand more critical questioning has also been a “defining approach” of the program’s interviews with President Obama. Indeed, when Steve Kroft scored an unprecedented joint interview with the president and former secretary of state Hillary Clinton in January, he used his time with them to ask questions such as “Why did you want to do this together, a joint interview?” and “Why were you so insistent about wanting her to be secretary of state?” He asked not a single follow-up question, even when the president made this implausible claim: “When it comes to Egypt, I think, had it not been for the leadership we showed, you might have seen a different outcome there.” The Muslim Brotherhood was in power at the time; President Obama’s silence in the wake of the military coup that overthrew that government indicates that he was not, in fact, pleased with the way events unfolded in Cairo.
So, why has 2013 been such a tough year for the show? Several sources familiar with the workings of CBS News point to Jeff Fager, its widely respected executive producer, who took the helm of 60 Minutes when the show’s legendary founder, Don Hewitt, retired. Fager, who also serves as CBS News chairman, has the last word on the show’s broadcasts. Atop him at the network sits only Les Moonves, the network’s president and chief executive officer. A network executive outside the 60 Minutes staff used to vet the pieces set to air, but that position was eliminated at the beginning of the year. If there is no oversight from above, sources familiar with the network’s inner workings say, questions do not percolate from below, either. A former colleague says that Fager’s best quality was “certitude,” because “he never had a second thought after making a decision.” By the same token, “his worst quality was certitude,” he adds. “He not only never doubted his decision but felt that any questioning displayed disloyalty. No one pushed a critical thought, as he or she might lose Jeff’s favor, if not their job.”
Fager last month acknowledged his own responsibility for the erroneous Benghazi report, writing in an e-mail to the staff, “As executive producer, I am responsible for what gets on the air.” In the wake of that scandal, the New York Times hinted that his position might be precarious. “One fallout from the discredited report may be continued questions about [Fager’s] dual role as both the top executive at CBS News and the person in charge of its highest-rated, most profitable and best-known program, 60 Minutes,” the Times wrote.
Whatever the outcome, former CBS employees see a change. They are grousing behind the scenes, pained to see that a program once known for its hard-hitting investigations is now lobbing softballs at subjects who formerly would have come in for more serious treatment. “Perhaps it is apples and oranges, but this whole embarrassing affair is akin to a politician giving a huge contract to a corporation that he will join after his last day in office,” Glauber says of the NSA piece. “One expects this of politicians and not CBS News. Mike Wallace from his grave must be grieving.”
— Eliana Johnson is media editor of National Review Online.