By Tim Graham, Director of Media Analysis
The Media Research Center
Since its debut in 1968, the CBS news magazine 60 Minutes
has painted itself as a hard-hitting show where reporters force top political and business leaders through a sweat-inducing obstacle course of scrutiny. But not every interview subject is subjected to brutal questioning. When it comes to liberals, the tone regularly changes from aggression to adoration.
In his book Tell Me A Story
, Don Hewitt, the late founder of 60 Minutes
, declared "Good journalism is confrontational by definition: You want information that other people prefer not be made public. In that regard, my wife, Marilyn, who has worked in both print and television, has said on many occasions, ‘Breaking eggs isn't pretty, but it's an inevitable part of strong reporting. The problem in television, and it's unavoidable, is that when television breaks eggs, the whole world is watching; when a print reporter breaks eggs, no one sees him do it.' To which I have to add, one of the things that neither print not television should do is make omelets out of law-abiding citizens."
But what happens when the boasting egg-breakers of television news make a sugary meringue instead of making trouble? A look back at the profiles on political figures on 60 Minutes
over the last four and a half years demonstrates that CBS hasn't only deployed its soft human-interest lens on movie stars or musicians, but on political leaders that it favors.
In looking at 60 Minutes
interview segments since January 1, 2006, Media Research Center analysts identified 52 politically oriented profile/interview segments: 35 granted to liberals and Democrats, and 17 to conservatives and Republicans. Interviews with current or former candidates, politicians, and political staffers were awarded on a more than two-to-one basis, 27 liberal interviews and 13 conservative. In addition to presidential candidates, CBS interviewed liberals John Murtha, Brian Schweitzer, Joe Biden, Rahm Emanuel, Barney Frank, Valerie Plame, Al Gore, Nancy Pelosi, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bill Clinton, and Jimmy Carter. Ten of these were unchallenging. Only Mike Wallace’s turn with Murtha offered hardballs.
Lesley Stahl is especially eager to please liberal stars. Jimmy Carter was selling a new book on September 19, and Stahl insisted with a straight tone that Carter was a bigger success than most presidents, including Ronald Reagan: "But when all is said and done, and many will be surprised to hear this: Jimmy Carter got more of his programs passed than Reagan and Nixon, Ford, Bush 1, Clinton or Bush 2." She also gushed to Carter: "A lot of critics of yours, when you were President, say that you've been a fantastic ex-President. You hear that all the time." She said this even as she reminded viewers that Carter wrote a letter to the United Nations Security Council telling them they should oppose President Bush on the need for the first Iraq war.
On April 26, 2009, Stahl forwarded the White House spin that Biden had a talent for connecting with people: "With his ‘atta-boying,' hand-gripping, hot personality, versus Obama's cool cat...Call him ‘schmoozer-in-chief.'" On December 18, 2008, Stahl touted Frank: "Barney Frank has been called the smartest guy in Congress, which is lucky for us, since he works on some of the thorniest issues around." She pointed out Republicans called him not a liberal, but a "market-savvy pragmatist."
Stahl wasn't alone. On March 19, 2010, Katie Couric's profile of Obama chief of staff Rahm Emanuel was fun and games, as when she pressed him about his profanity, specifically a plaque in his office his brothers gave him that reads "The Undersecretary of Go [Blank] Yourself." Then they laughed.
There was a more serious gap between presidential candidates before the 2008 elections: eight to Democrats (Obama drew five interviews, Hillary Clinton two and John Edwards one) and three to Republicans (John McCain three, Mitt Romney one). All four Republican interviews were challenging. The first four Obama interviews were soft, as well as one Katie Couric interview with Mrs. Clinton. Overall, Obama was awarded eight interviews – and an hour-long special at the end of 2008 that replayed all the interviews up to that time. Obama's two interviews as president have been tougher and more substantive sessions.
Conservatives or Republican officials interviewed were Supreme Court justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, Rep. Jeff Flake, and Bush adminstration officials Douglas Feith, Condoleezza Rice, George Tenet, and David Kuo. The Flake interview (about his battle against earmark spending) was positive. The Clarence Thomas interview by Steve Kroft on September 30, 2007 drew much more controversy in liberal-media circles than Kroft's Obama interviews. Kroft began with a list of liberal complaints about Thomas being an opportunistic sellout and lightweight, and declared: "The problem with the characterization is that it's unfair and untrue."
As for the other interviews, Lesley Stahl began by telling Justice Scalia on September 14, 2008 that "I'm surprised at how many people really, really hate you. These are some things we've been told. ‘He's evil.' ‘He's a Neanderthal.' ‘He's going to drag us back to 1789.'" None of the Bush adminstration officials (even Kuo, who delighted liberals by charging hypocrisy and bad faith in the President's faith-based initiative) went unchallenged.
When it came to journalists and celebrities, the ratio was ten interviews to three. There were liberal authors Bob Woodward (twice), the duo of Mark Halperin and John Heileman, and the pairing of Ted Kennedy, Jr. and publisher Jonathan Karp, selling Sen. Ted Kennedy's last book True Compass
. The liberal entertainers were Alec Baldwin, Bruce Springsteen, the Dixie Chicks, Stephen Colbert, and Vanessa Redgrave. The conservatives were T. Boone Pickens, Bill O'Reilly, and Lou Dobbs. In this category, all ten of the liberal interviews were unchallenging to the guest, even as they denounced conservatives.
O'Reilly and Dobbs were both treated skeptically. The Pickens interview on October 26, 2008 (about his advocacy of wind power) was very positive – except for Charlie Rose's request that Pickens denounce the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth ads against John Kerry.
Rose said Pickens found it uncomfortable around Kerry, "whose presidential campaign Pickens helped destroy four years ago when he gave money for the infamous and widely criticized Swift Boat ads that attacked the Senator's service in Vietnam and his later testimony before Congress." Rose pressed Pickens about any regrets: "You spent $3 million funding an advertising campaign that, in some people's mind, was representative of dirty politics, smear politics, character assassination, all of that. At this stage, do you have any reservations?" Pickens said "None."Previous: Executive SummaryNext: The Selling of Barack Obama