It’s not quite the all-powerful television-news icon that it used to be, but few programs on television have a pedigree that equals 60 Minutes, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this autumn. For most of its five decades, this was the closest thing television news had to “appointment television”: three investigative segments or profiles, followed by Andy Rooney in his disheveled office, asking us if we ever noticed how paperclips never do the job quite as well as binder clips.
The 60 Minutes investigative style offered cinematic drama and a classic recurring narrative: You think you know this big, powerful, trusted institution. But behind its walls, it has a dark secret. One insider isn’t willing to stay silent anymore. He’s going to tell us something that will shock you, and make you look at that big powerful trusted institution in a different light. A representative of the institution will offer an implausible and unconvincing denial. Shortly after our reporting, someone will resign or face criminal investigation. The 60 Minutes style of interrogation-by-televised interview was so iconic it inspired Martin Short’s character Nathan Thurm, a hilarious, chain-smoking, sweating caricature of the guilty-as-sin corporate executive.
But the history of 60 Minutes isn’t an entirely noble one. The great missteps in the program’s history mostly stem from producers and reporters who fell in love with the noble-whistleblower narrative and were so eager to demonize the big institutions that they relied on untrustworthy sources.
It’s easy to forget that Dateline NBC wasn’t the first program to rig an automobile to create an exciting visual for a report about an allegedly unsafe car. In November 1986, 60 Minutes aired a seeming blockbuster report contending that Audi cars were bedeviled by “sudden acceleration.” The report featured “a self-styled expert who drilled a hole in an Audi transmission and pumped in air at high pressure. Viewers didn’t see the drill or the pump, just the doctored car blasting off like a rocket.” After the report aired, Audi’s sales plummeted by two-thirds.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration investigated Audi’s cars for three years. It found nothing mechanically wrong with the car, speculating that because Audi’s brake and safety pedals were closer together than those in other cars, drivers were accidentally hitting the accelerator instead of the brake.
60 Minutes set off another panic in 1989, broadcasting an illustration of a skull and crossbones over an apple in its report on Alar, with correspondent Ed Bradley calling the pesticide “the most potent cancer-causing agent in the food supply today.” The New York Times later revealed how an environmental-activism group that pitched the story shaped the televised report:
Natural Resources Defense Council was preparing a study of the harm posed to children by pesticides in food. The group did no laboratory studies of its own but reviewed the existing findings that Alar posed some risk of causing cancer and that children eat proportionately more apples than adults. The council concluded that Alar could cause cancer in thousands of children. . . .
The following month, schools in New York and Los Angeles canceled supplies of apple juice, supermarkets under public pressure removed apples from their shelves, and farmers, unable to sell their produce, dumped tons of apples in ditches or gave them away to organizations for the homeless.
The EPA quickly moved to ban Alar; all apple farmers, whether they used Alar or not, were hit hard by the sudden plummet in demand. The official journal of the National Academy of Sciences later concluded, “There was never any legitimate scientific study to justify the Alar scare.”
In 1998, executive producer Don Hewitt appeared on air to apologize and retract a report about drug-smuggling that had relied on a freelancer and used faked footage. The preceding year, viewers watched as one person, identified as a drug courier, swallowing what was said to be 60 fingers of latex gloves filled with pure heroin. The footage came from a British documentary . . . and it turned out the courier, as well as two other persons identified as a “loader” and a “drug kingpin,” were in fact actors hired to play those roles.
The great missteps in the program’s history mostly stem from producers and reporters who fell in love with the noble-whistleblower narrative and were so eager to demonize the big institutions that they relied on untrustworthy sources.
After Hewitt’s apology, Baltimore Sun television critic David Zurawik offered a grim warning: “When it comes to newsmagazines, there is ‘60 Minutes’, and then there is everybody else. But I wonder how much longer the 76-year-old Hewitt will be able to maintain those standards in the current network news climate of cloning and cost-effectiveness.”
He was prophetic. The ill-fated spinoff 60 Minutes II produced the most embarrassing moment in CBS News history, Dan Rather’s report claiming that President George W. Bush’s service in the Texas Air National Guard was “sugarcoated” by his superiors, and citing four documents to prove it, four allegedly typewritten documents from decades ago that just happened to match the current default font and style of Microsoft Word. Only a fool or a blind zealot would have placed so much faith in the accounts of Lieutenant Colonel Bill Burkett, who had been making unverifiable claims about Bush for years. The subsequent report by former attorney general Richard Thornburgh and former Associated Press president Louis Boccardi painted a devastating portrait of a news operation determined to ignore any contrary evidence or skepticism, edit skeptical statements to make them sound supportive, and eager to cooperate with the presidential campaign of John Kerry.
60 Minutes even generated perhaps the rarest journalistic scandal of all: a mainstream institution falling for a hoax that makes a Democratic administration look bad and supports a line of Republican criticism. About a year after terrorists attacked that killed four Americans in Benghazi, Libya, correspondent Lara Logan offered viewers a gut-wrenching tale about a British security contractor named Morgan Jones who claimed to have been in the thick of the fighting around the U.S. diplomatic compound. Jones had an autobiography about to be published by CBS subsidiary Simon & Schuster. Jones’s real name is Dylan Davies, and he had told differing versions of his actions that night; according to the account he gave his employers, he never made it to the compound that night.
A few days later, Logan apologized to viewers: “What we now know is that he told the FBI a different story from what he told us. That’s when we realized that we no longer had confidence in our source, and that we were wrong to put him on air, and we apologize to our viewers.”
Just recently, 60 Minutes broadcast another bombshell that might not be quite what it claimed. The program showcased former high-ranking Drug Enforcement Agency agent Joe Rannazzisi, who contended that his efforts to fight opioid dealers “ran into a brick wall — in the form of Congress.” But quite a few students of drug policy, including our own Robert VerBruggen, are wondering if the story adds up. The alleged “brick wall” comes in the form of a law passed in 2016 that more specifically defined the DEA’s authority to issue “immediate suspension orders” to halt drug shipments during an investigation. The law specified that the DEA could issue the suspension order only in cases of “imminent danger,” defined as “a substantial likelihood of an immediate threat that death, serious bodily harm, or abuse of a controlled substance will occur in the absence of an immediate suspension of the registration.”
The 60 Minutes report called the law “legislation that would destroy DEA’s enforcement powers.”
The story prompted Representative Tom Marino (R., Pa.) to withdraw his name to be President Trump’s “drug czar” heading the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. But literally no one in Congress voted against it, and President Obama signed it into law. And it’s hard to believe that the previous, looser language about immediate suspension orders was such an effective tool, since the opioid crisis continued to grow dramatically while it was still in effect.
Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah, one of the legislation’s sponsors, scoffed, “Let’s not pretend that DEA, both Houses of Congress, and the Obama White House all somehow wilted under Representative Marino’s nefarious influences.” Indeed, Hatch, an 83-year-old law-and-order Mormon, is an equally unlikely suspect for a plot to destroy the DEA’s enforcement powers.
But perhaps that’s the lesson of 50 years of 60 Minutes. If you come to them sounding like an outraged whistleblower, ready to expose the dirty secret of a big, trusted institution, the producers and correspondents are ready to listen. History teaches us that truthful allegations are preferred, but not necessarily required.