Syrupy Minutes
How CBS's 60 Minutes Works Overtime for the Obama Left

The Selling of Barack Obama

No politician has been a greater beneficiary of 60 Minutes publicity than Barack Obama. His interviews have also benefited his CBS questioner, Steve Kroft. The Los Angeles Times reported Kroft has "emerged in the last year as the face of the program, in part because of his reports on the financial crisis and his much-watched interviews with candidate and President Obama." Executive producer Jeff Fager boasted: "I don't think anyone can tell a story better."

On National Public Radio, Fager insisted the show had hit its stride, digging into the hard news and leaving celebrity puffery behind. "We had an enormous responsibility to fulfill our commitment to be there when important stories break, and to report them in a way that I think we do uniquely, which is to dig down deeper and help people understand them." Reporter Steve Kroft added: "I think the news just took over...How are you not going to do a story about the first black presidential candidate in the most closely watched presidential campaign since 1960, probably? You have to do it. That's what everybody's interested in." But 60 Minutes never really "dug down deeper" into Obama's life or record. Instead, they awarded him vague and friendly interviews not much different than the celebrity puffery they claimed to be avoiding.

While Democratic nominee John Kerry drew only two favorable profiles in 2004, CBS correspondent Steve Kroft interviewed Obama five times before the election for 60 Minutes – and three times since. In the first four interviews, before the Labor Day campaign kickoff or the mid-September economic collapse, Kroft's questions focused in two vague and unchallenging areas: horse-race questions about Obama's political viability against his opponents, or personal inquiries, including questions about making chili for the kids or getting a family dog. Of the 49 Kroft questions in the first four CBS interviews, 42 were personal or horse-race questions. Only seven focused on issues – five on foreign policy, and two on trade – with no real focus on domestic issues.

There's a wide swath of issues that Kroft avoided – every social issue from abortion to homosexuality to affirmative action; every concern about taxes and federal spending and regulation; and major areas of liberal ambition like health care and global warming. Kroft also completely avoided Obama's state legislative record in Illinois and scandal figures from Reverend Jeremiah Wright to Tony Rezko to William Ayers. This raises the question of whether CBS agreed to interview Obama with the condition that some questions were off limits – or worse, that conditions weren't really needed since CBS wanted to make history instead of news.

Interview One. The first interview came early – on February 11, 2007, timed to mark Obama's entry into the presidential race. Kroft asked Obama "What makes you think that you're qualified to be president of the United States?" and noted his confidence, even hinting at hubris, since Obama compared himself to Abraham Lincoln: "He is ambitious and just daring enough to invite comparisons to one of the few American presidents who was elected with even less political experience than he has." Kroft suggested the CBS fascination with him was just a media phenomenon, not an ideological love affair: "Propelled by the media hungry for a fresh face and a good story, he has graced the covers of Time and Newsweek, the pages of Men's Vogue, and has been endorsed by Oprah."

Kroft didn't touch on Rev. Wright, but he did focus Obama on the topic of race: "Do you think the country is ready for a black president?" Obama said yes. Kroft protested: "You don't think it's going to hold you back?" He also told Obama: "There are African-Americans who don't think that you're black enough, who don't think that you have had the required experience." Race isn't just a color, it's an "experience."

Kroft certainly could have touched on Obama's minister. On that same night – February 11, 2007 – ABC's Jake Tapper mentioned the controversy in passing on World News Sunday: "His foreign-policy views are just one target for Obama's critics, who have questions for the senator about any number of issues, including whether his church here on Chicago's South Side, which expresses a message of black power, is too militant for mainstream America to accept." Obama's critics had questions, but CBS did not.

Interview Two. A year later, Kroft and Obama reconnected, on February 10, 2008. Again, Kroft sold Obama as a media star: "He's been helped by the media's lust for a good story and the electorate's hunger for change. What he lacks in executive experience, he's made up for with a grasp of the issues, an ability to read the public mood, and the gift of turning Democratic boilerplate into political poetry." As in the first interview, Kroft's toughest push was on experience: "The only thing that you've actually run is the Harvard Law Review."

Several Kroft assertions were made without the irony they deserved. He asked Obama, "You talk about big ideas, often with a lack of specificity, and it's been one of the complaints about your campaign." He then asked questions without much specifics: "What do you think of what's going on in Iraq right now?" He ended the interview by noting Obama was only getting three or four hours of sleep and asking him: "Did you play basketball on Super Tuesday?" Obama liked to play basketball on primary days, whether that was superstition or just public relations. Kroft then closed: "But superstitions won't stop scrutiny, and so far, his record has received far less of it than Senator Clinton's, in part because he has less of a record to scrutinize." Kroft had done nothing to change that pattern.

Interview Three. For a segment that aired on March 2, 2008, Kroft traveled with both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton on the campaign trail in Ohio, so it wasn't as much of an Obama profile as the previous interviews. While Kroft pressed Obama from the left on trade, on whether he needed to stop "nibbling around the edges" and take "stronger action, bolder action, a more protectionist policy," the interview made waves with its supportive focus on rumors that Obama was a Muslim:

KROFT: One of the things we found in southern Ohio – not widespread, but something that popped up on our radar screen all the time, people talking about it, this idea that you're a Muslim.

OBAMA: Did you correct them, Steve?

KROFT: I did correct them.

OBAMA: There you go.

KROFT: Where's it coming from?

Obama explained that it was a "systematic e-mail smear campaign," and said "I have never been a Muslim, and not a Muslim," but asserted he was "a devout Christian who's been going to the same church for the last 20 years." Despite that cue, Kroft never mentioned Reverend Wright. Kroft also pressed Hillary Clinton to denounce the rumors he found "scurrilous," and she drew brickbats across the media for answering he wasn't Muslim "as far as I know."

Interview Four. Kroft interviewed Obama and new running mate Joe Biden after the Democratic convention on August 31, 2008. This interview had two themes: the first was a set of horse-race questions ticking off liberal worries. There was Biden's trouble with gaffes and the plagiarism problem that killed his 1988 presidential campaign. Kroft said "I'm sure the Republicans are working on a campaign commercial right now on it." There was Obama's lack of "killer instinct," or as Kroft sweetly put it to Obama, he was "a very deliberative, judicious person who prides himself on building consensus, but it is not in your DNA to be confrontational." Kroft concluded the segment by asking about liberals who expected a larger lead in the polls: "You are running against the record of an administration that is one of the most unpopular in the history of the country. And there are people that believe that you should be much farther ahead in the polls than you are."

They also discussed the potential of McCain running mate Sarah Palin to peel off blue-collar voters, that spurred chummy banter about beer and bowling:

KROFT: But you tried really hard to reach these people. You went and sipped beer, which I know you don't particularly like. I mean, you even...

OBAMA: Well, now, Steve, I had a beer last night. I mean, where do these stories come from, man?

BIDEN: I'm the one who doesn't drink.

KROFT: I thought you told me that.

OBAMA: Where does the story come from that...

KROFT: I thought you told me.

OBAMA: ...I don't like beer?

KROFT: Anyway.

OBAMA: Come on, man.

KROFT: You even tried bowling. Some might...

OBAMA: Now, hold – time out a second.

KROFT: My question is, Senator...

OBAMA: No, look, you're – I've got to defend my bowling out of here. It is true that my bowling score left something to be desired. The reason I bowled, though, wasn't to try to get votes. If I had – if I had been trying to get votes, I promise you, I would have been avoiding a bowling alley. The reason I was there was to campaign, and we had great fun.

Viewers might have wondered whether they were watching a "newsmaker" interview, or just three friends shooting the breeze.

Interview Five. Both Obama and John McCain were interviewed for the September 21, 2008 edition of 60 Minutes, two days after the first presidential debate. Due to the economic collapse (and perhaps the bipartisan booking), Obama faced only 10 generic personal or horse-race questions and 17 policy inquiries. Even then, Kroft's questions were not hard-hitting. They were vague and they were brief. "Do you think that Secretary of the Treasury Paulson has done the right thing?....Do you think we're in a recession?....Do you think the worst is over?" The bailout was questioned like this: "Should the government be bailing out all these banks and insurance companies? We're talking about hundreds and hundreds of billions of dollars."

The contrast was striking to Scott Pelley's interview with McCain: "But why would you let the Wall Street executives sail away on their yachts and leave this on the American taxpayer?" Obama and McCain both supported the bailout, but CBS only painted one as a soft touch for crooked financial barons.

Kroft memorably insisted to Obama that many voters in Nevada were racists: "I know, for a fact, that there are a lot of people out there, there are a lot of people right here in Elko, who won't vote for you because you're black. I mean, there's not much you can do. But how do you deal with it? I mean, are there ways that, from a political point of view, that you can deal with it? And how do you fight that?"

After the Victory. November brought only victory laps. A November 9, 2008 interview with a set of Obama's campaign aides (David Axelrod, David Plouffe, Robert Gibbs, and Anita Dunn) began with Kroft asking Axelrod: "We just left [the victory rally at] Grant Park. What are you feeling?" It ended with Kroft asking in amazement: "You ran an incredibly effective and disciplined campaign, certainly one of the most effective presidential campaigns that's ever been run. There was no infighting, no real leaks, almost no turnover. How did you manage that? Even the Republicans were in awe."

It's easier to run a disciplined campaign when your CBS interviewers act so very disciplined in their interviewing and reporting. For example, why didn't Kroft manage to discover the Reverend Wright controversy in any of his pre-election interviews?

All of the questions to Team Obama were personal or horse-race questions, and none of them were tough. In between those softballs was a brief review of the Wright fiasco, which only bubbled up when Plouffe attempted to claim that "I think the number of meetings we had about race was zero." Kroft couldn't believe it: "You certainly must have had some meetings on it during the Jeremiah Wright affair." Axelrod conceded indirectly that it was a "pivotal moment," but the fuss was all external: "Pandemonium erupted in the political community," but not inside the no-drama Obama campaign.

Interview Six. On November 16, 2008, Kroft's Obama interview was split into hard news and soft. In the first segment, Kroft offered 15 issue questions (11 on the financial crisis), eight brief queries on the transition, and seven personal questions. The second segment of the interview, with Michelle Obama, consisted of 21 personal softballs. Now that the election was over, CBS's Steve Kroft proposed that perhaps Obama could be Franklin Delano Roosevelt: "People are comparing this to 1932. Is that a valid comparison, do you think?" Obama didn't accept the comparison: "Well, keep in mind that 1932, 1933 the unemployment rate was 25 percent, inching up to 30 percent. You had a third of the country that was ill-housed, ill-clothed. We're not going through something comparable to that. But I would say that this is as bad as we've seen since then."

But Kroft wouldn't let go of trying to paint the America of 2008 as dire as 1932. Eight minutes later in the interview, when Obama related how he was reading briefing papers and had read about Abraham Lincoln putting political rivals in his cabinet, Kroft returned to the Depression: "Have you been reading anything about the Depression? Anything about FDR?" Kroft also lobbed personal softballs to the incoming First Couple, including: "Do you have a special transition team for [selecting] the dog? Or are you just doing that?"

Selling a DVD. On December 28, 2008, 60 Minutes aired a special edition rehashing all the previous interviews. There were no new Obama interviews, but there were new softball questions that had not previously aired. But the whole thing focused on the personal questions – 36 personal questions to the Obamas, and just five rehashed horse-race inquiries.

This special documentary was the basis for an Obama-promoting DVD called Obama All Access: Barack Obama's Road to the White House. CBS used this promotial lingo to lure Obama supporters: "See the candidate making sandwiches for his young daughters, the rising political superstar on the campaign trail, the confident candidate poised for victory, and the president-elect with his future first lady reflecting publicly for the first time on the fact that they will be the first African-American couple to occupy the White House."

When he was interviewed by Bill O'Reilly on FNC's O'Reilly Factor on February 4, 2009, Steve Kroft explained they jumped out of the starting gate on the Obama story: "We started early. I went out and spent a bunch of time with him before he declared...They were dying to have somebody come out, especially 60 Minutes, very early on to kind of explain their campaign....we developed a nice rapport." O'Reilly asked "What does it say to people other than ‘Go, go Obama?'" Kroft replied: "It's an historical document. And I think we'll probably sell a lot of copies to libraries and things like that. Maybe to some -- maybe to some Republican political consultants." O'Reilly followed up: "Is there cheerleading in it?" Kroft responded: "No, I don't think so. It's -- we've taken the interviews and it is a straight narrative of the campaign."

In narrating the Obama story around the clips, Kroft strongly pushed Obama as a star and a phenomenon: "He had yet to declare his candidacy, but he was already the biggest political celebrity in America. Propelled by the media hunger for a fresh face and a good story, he had graced the covers of Time and Newsweek, been endorsed by Oprah, and the campaign itself seemed to have morphed out of his latest book tour."

Kroft recalled a rally at George Mason University in northern Virginia: "It was our first exposure to what came to be known as ‘Obama-mania.' You sensed immediately that something unusual was going on, something rarely seen in American politics... 5,000 students had turned out to see him...he urged his young audience to cast aside its cynicism of politics and engage the system, evoking the words of Martin Luther King."

Kroft had this question for Michelle Obama: "We were with him at George Mason, and it was like – it was like a rock concert. I mean, he was – people were mobbing him. Do you understand the charisma thing? Do you see it?"

Obama's five interviews with Kroft since he became president have been tougher and more issue-oriented. Unlike the warm and light segments of the campaign phase, they were not jam-packed with positive personal information. On September 13, 2009, Kroft pressed Obama gently from the right about his sunny optimism about the cost of his health-care proposals: "There is still a great deal of skepticism about how this plan is going to be paid for. What you promised is essentially you promised not to affect anybody who has coverage now at all. You have promised to add another 30 million people into the system and you're saying that you can do all of this or want to do all this without impacting or increasing the deficit by a dime. How do you do that?"

CBS may have decided a president needs a little more scrutiny – or their DVD production for Obama supporters was completed.

Previous: Introduction

Next: A Contrast to Obama

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