CBS also celebrated liberal journalists and celebrities with softball interviews on 60 Minutes
, even as they denounced conservatives. Washington Post
editor and author Bob Woodward was granted a series of interviews promoting his books and attacking President Bush. CBS didn't challenge Woodward, and viewers were usually notified about one reason: Woodward's books were published by Simon & Schuster, part of the same corporate family as CBS.
On September 7, 2008, as they plugged Woodward's book The War Within
, Scott Pelley summoned the subject of Bush's frustration with the Iraqi people. Woodward explained: "He has a meeting at the Pentagon with a bunch of experts and he just said, ‘I don't understand that the Iraqis are not appreciative of what we've done for them,' namely liberating them." Pelley then asked: "But tens of thousands of innocent Iraqis had been killed in the invasion and through the occupation. He didn't understand why they might be a little ungrateful about what had occurred to them?" Woodward suggested the president was deluded: "His beacon is liberation. He thinks we've done this magnificent thing for them. I think he still holds to that position."
Earlier in the interview, Pelley aided Woodward in underlining Bush's thirst for blood: "Mr. Bush told Woodward that he was frustrated with his commanders and asked for enemy body counts so he could keep score." Woodward explained: "And this is Bush's concern that we're not going out and killing. In fact, [Gen. George] Casey told one colleague privately that the president's view is almost reflective of ‘kill the bastards, kill the bastards, and that way we'll succeed.'" Pelley didn't challenge Woodward's fierce narrative against Bush, and didn't question any of Woodward's sources or methods -- except to suggest that Woodward was holding back information on how the government was targeting al-Qaeda leaders.
Mike Wallace hawked Woodward's book State of Denial
on October 1, 2006. "According to Woodward, another key general, John Abizaid, who's in charge of the whole Gulf region, told friends that, on Iraq, Rumsfeld has lost all credibility." Woodward touted war stories from liberal hero John Murtha: "John Murtha is, in many ways, the soul and the conscience of the military. And he came out and said, ‘We need to get out of Iraq as soon as it's practical.' And that sent a 10,000-volt jolt through the White House. Here's Mr. Military saying we need to get out. And John Abizaid went to see him privately. This is Bush's and Rumsfeld's commander in Iraq. And John Abizaid held up his fingers, according to Murtha, and said, ‘We're about a quarter of an inch apart.' He said ‘We're that far apart.'"
This is quite a contrast with Bush Pentagon official Douglas Feith. When he was interviewed by Steve Kroft on April 6, 2008 about his book The Path to War
, it wasn't just a helpful download of his findings. "General Franks, I don't have to tell you what he said, but he called you...Basically, the dumbest guy on the face of the planet. Former CIA Director George Tenet called your intelligence evaluations ‘total crap.' This isn't normal Washington discourse." But it is the way conservatives are evaluated on CBS. Kroft continued: "Some of them have already answered that question in books of their own or with quotes in the books of others, portraying Feith as a bureaucratic bully hellbent on war."
Scott Pelley's interview with former CIA director George Tenet on April 29, 2007 was a classic 60 Minutes
takedown, not letting Tenet answer in mid-accusation: "Two of the 19 hijackers, in your files, in Langley, Virginia, a year and a half...before 9/11....They don't get on a watch list....They don't get on a no-fly list....You know, these are bad guys." He added: "If this plan of yours is so great....and if Afghanistan went so well....how does Osama bin Laden get away....when we've got him cornered at Tora Bora?" On evidence of chemical weapons in Iraq, Pelley lectured: "We are going to war. Tens of thousands of people are going to be killed, and you're telling me you had evidence to prove a civil case, and not a criminal case?"
CBS didn't play hardball with liberal darling Valerie Plame, the CIA agent who hired her own husband to find evidence Saddam Hussein sought uranium for nuclear weapons in Niger. Katie Couric's sugary profile on October 21, 2007 began with inaccuracy: "As a CIA spy, Valerie Plame Wilson wasn't allowed to defend herself, maintaining her silence for four long years until tonight." That was a bizarre claim considering that Couric reported the story of Plame testifying before Congress in March of 2007.
Couric failed to press hard on Plame over the politically charged decision to assign her husband to a secret mission to Niger. Plame suggested "another colleague of mine" came up with the idea of sending her husband:
COURIC: When it was brought up, did you think, ‘That's a reasonable idea.'
PLAME: Well, yes, because Joe has the independent credentials to do this. He knew Iraq and Saddam Hussein. He had served many years in Africa, he had, in fact, knew the governments, the different governments of Niger. He...
COURIC: He had, in fact, gone to Niger for the CIA before.
PLAME: Yes. He had done some missions, yes....
COURIC: Why do you think the administration made such a big deal over who exactly sent your husband to Niger?
PLAME: Because this sets up this erroneous charge of somehow there was nepotism involved. And therefore, if I could be accused of sending him, then what Joe reported on was invalid.
Couric and CBS made no attempt to press Plame about her honesty, using her own obvious words personally selling her husband in a February 12, 2002 internal CIA memo, pushed forward by Sen. Kit Bond in May of 2007: "My husband is willing to help, if it makes sense, but no problem if not. End of story....my husband has good relations with both the PM [of Niger] and the former minister of mines, not to mention lots of French contacts, both of whom could possibly shed light on this sort of activity. To be frank with you, I was somewhat embarrassed by the agency's sloppy work last go-round, and I am hesitant to suggest anything again. However, [my husband] may be in a position to assist."
One part of the 60 Minutes
formula for ratings is grabbing movie stars for interviews. When Morley Safer interviewed Alec Baldwin on May 12, 2008, shortly after the Democratic primaries ended, he not only let the actor vent about the "vast right-wing conspiracy," he joined him in condemning Sean Hannity as a "junkyard dog."
SAFER: And yet it's his off-screen performances that can get in the way of a truly gifted man. And often it's his liberal politics that make him red meat for his critics.
BALDWIN: They hate liberals who can throw a punch.
SAFER: "They"? Who's "they"? Who's...
BALDWIN: They, the vast right-wing conspiracy that's after me.
SAFER: Liberal politics has always been his passion. He grew up in a working class family on Long Island, New York. He has an impressive grasp of the issues and spends a huge amount of his time and money supporting causes he believes in: animal rights, the environment, the arts. But his bare-knuckled approach to political discourse –
BALDWIN: Not all Republicans are as insane as these extremist conservatives.
SAFER: – has made him an easy target for conservative junkyard dogs like Sean Hannity.
On October 8, 2007, Scott Pelley rolled out the red carpet for rock star Bruce Springsteen to unload on the terrible, even "anti-American" things unleashed by the Bush administration. Springsteen boasted he was a "canary in a coalmine" during the dark era of Bush.
PELLEY: What's on your mind? What are you writing about?
SPRINGSTEEN: I try to chart the distance between American ideals and American reality. That's how my music is laid out. It's like we're – we reached a point where we're so intent on protecting ourselves that we're willing to destroy the best parts of ourselves to do so.
PELLEY: What do you mean?
SPRINGSTEEN: Well, I think that we've seen things happen over the past six years that I don't think anybody ever thought they'd see in the United States. When people think of the American identity, they don't think of torture, they don't think of illegal wiretapping, they don't think of voter suppression, they don't think of no habeas corpus, no right to a lawyer to --you know? Those are things that, those are things that are anti-American.
PELLEY: You know, I think this record is going to be seen as anti-war. And you know there are people watching this interview who are going to say to themselves, "Bruce Springsteen is no patriot."
SPRINGSTEEN: Well, that's just the language of the day, you know? The modus operandi for anybody who doesn't like somebody, you know, criticizing where we've been or where we're going, you know. It's unpatriotic at any given moment to sit back and let things pass that are – that are damaging to someplace that you love so dearly and that's given me so much, and that I believe in. I still feel and see it as a beacon of hope and possibility.
CBS also hailed the Dixie Chicks for bravely declaring at a London concert they were ashamed to be from the same state as President Bush, which led to controversy and boycotts. Since the Bush-bashing incident in London, Steve Kroft insisted, "the only thing that's changed is that nearly 70 percent of the American public now agrees with her, at least to some extent." Kroft touted their new song "Not Ready to Make Nice" like he was earning a commission: "The song is powerful and unrepentant. The anger isn't directed at the war or the president or their many fans who deserted them. It's about the hatred and narrow-minded intolerance that they encountered for expressing an opinion. As artists, they wanted to respond with music and a video to drive home the point." Kroft overlooked that the song painted their critics with a broad brush, as people who write letters "Sayin' that I better shut up and sing, or my life will be over."
Unsurprisingly, on April 30, 2006, CBS touted liberal satirist Stephen Colbert, who pretends to be an idiotic conservative on Comedy Central. Whether his liberalism or his corporate connection to CBS through Viacom is a better reason for a puff piece is unclear. But Morley Safer began with his personal delight: "If you flip through the cable news channels any weeknight, you're bound to see a collection of talking heads, or rather shouting heads, who draw large audiences with a diet of often wildly inaccurate, but patriotic and combative noise. The shows are not exactly news or entertainment, but are exactly outrageous. Bill O'Reilly perfected the formula on Fox, and others have successfully followed his recipe. With all of their excesses, it was only a matter of time before someone came along to skewer them. Well, the eagle has landed." This exchange summed it up:
SAFER: That character that you play. Is he smart or is he proud to be stupid?
COLBERT: I think of him as well-intentioned, poorly informed, high-status, idiot.
SAFER: And the last defense against Hollywood liberals like Tim Robbins. Colbert looks to the very fount of truthiness for inspiration: Bill O'Reilly....Apart from the substance, which you, in a sense, borrow from these guys, what about mannerisms?
COLBERT: Volume's very important. The only real way to tell your audience what's important is what you say loudest. I can say it up here or I could say it down here, but I'll cut off your mike, sir. Get – shut up! Shut up, Safer!
The 13-minute segment could easily be mistaken for infomercial, with four and a half minutes of its air time devoted to clips from The Colbert Report
, and that's not counting all the endless clips being shown while Safer talks over the video. The title of the piece was simply "The Colbert Report," with the program's logo on screen.
To make sure CBS was taking its corporate synergy to the highest level, Colbert was also featured when 60 Minutes
profiled FNC's Bill O'Reilly, and CNN's Lou Dobbs. Mike Wallace began his O'Reilly piece on February 26, 2007 this way: "Who is Bill O'Reilly? Is he a patriot? A blowhard? A braggart? A bully? Well, it turns out, there's a lot more to him than any of that. Since we sat down in 2004, he has maintained his domination of cable news, competitors have tried to copy him. And four nights a week, perhaps the ultimate flattery, Stephen Colbert parodies him on Comedy Central." The story was chummy in tone, but Wallace called O'Reilly a fame and power addict:
O'REILLY: When you're a working-class guy like I used to paint houses...
WALLACE: Oh, give me a break! You're a working-class guy?
O'REILLY: I am, Mike. You know that.
WALLACE: You are addicted to the power, you are addicted to the money, you are addicted to the fact that ‘I am Bill O'Reilly, and everybody knows it.'
O'REILLY: Dr. Phil is back. How did he get in the room?
WALLACE: Come on, come on, come on!
Lesley Stahl's segment on Lou Dobbs on May 3, 2007 used footage of Dobbs on The Colbert Report
, but Stahl presented Dobbs as a man who's reckless with the facts. At one point, she lectured: "Well, here's what they say about you: That you distort the figures, that you exaggerate, and that you aim to inflame just to get ratings....Reporters don't take on issues; reporters report issues. And there's a big difference there." It's too bad Stahl didn't take this critique to Dan Rather before his George W. Bush National Guard fiasco on 60 Minutes II
Stahl accused Dobbs of wildly exaggerating the amount of leprosy cases in the United States (and Dobbs later retracted). She was obviously hostile. Dobbs brought in a leftist group that wanted Dobbs removed from CNN (and ultimately succeeded):
STAHL: Mark Potok who monitors hate groups for the Southern Poverty Law Center, charges that Dobbs is a fearmonger.
POTOK: The impression you get, pretty strongly, I think, day after day, is that, you know, sort of all 11 million illegal aliens are bringing leprosy; they're bringing crime; they're bringing all these terrible things to the United States.
STAHL: If these people have come into this country illegally, what is so wrong with somebody taking it up as an advocate?
POTOK: That does not sort of give one the go-ahead to say that, you know, "These are a group of rapists and disease-carrying people who are coming to, you know, essentially destroy the culture of this country." You know, I think that's a long leap.
Potok was exactly the kind of fierce critic that 60 Minutes
never seemed to locate for an interview when it was profiling liberal politicians and celebrities.
CBS even honored an author posthumously. On September 13, 2009, Lesley Stahl honored the last memoir of Ted Kennedy, titled True Compass
. Ted Kennedy Jr said he often feared his father would be shot: "Most people keep coats and umbrellas in their coat closet. My father kept bulletproof vests in his coat closet. And believe me, we would walk by that coat closet every day, you know, fearful about some crazy person out there, you know, wanting to make a name for themselves. And that I think was in the back of our minds almost every time that my father would appear in public."
Stahl lamented "how hard it was for Ted Sr. to be the baby in the Kennedy family. ‘I was always catching up,' he writes, ‘I was the ninth of nine'…. He felt a -- a sense of inadequacy till he was quite old." Stahl glossed quickly over Chappaquiddick, as Jonathan Karp, his publisher with Hachette, insisted "he's spent his life trying to atone for this," and then quickly turned the sympathy right back to poor Teddy. "One thing he says that he's never said before is that he was tormented by the idea that it's-- his father's death may have been hastened by Chappaquiddick." Stahl could only wither and sympathize: "Oh, my God." Conclusion
Over its long tenure, 60 Minutes
has unquestionably manufactured a long record of highly-rated TV news, and part of that formula is an occasionally syrupy profile of celebrities. But our politicians are not elected to be famous and admired. They are elected to serve the public. When the anchors who boast of their hard-hitting techniques treat politicians as celebrities and devote their questions to flattering trivia about getting a family dog or whether the candidate makes his daughters macaroni and cheese, as they did with Barack Obama, they doubly fail to serve the public.
CBS could protest that they're just trying to allow the public an exclusive view inside a candidate's private life. But the makers of 60 Minutes
didn't offer that softly lit view to all the candidates. They favored one candidate, repeatedly, and then took a victory lap when the election was over with a DVD featuring the Greatest Softballs. A review of the recent output of 60 Minutes
should cause media historians to restrain themselves before declaring that this program is a hallmark of hard-hitting journalism, without a political axe to grind. They either carry an axe or a shoe-shine kit. Previous: A Contrast to Obama