With Nightline possibly being replaced by a nightclub-themed “News Cabaret” show, Dan Rather in pseudo-retirement following ‘Memogate’, and broadcast news in general castigated in the new book Bad News, 60-Minutes founder Don Hewitt thinks he has the answer.
In an April 20 interview with The New York Observer’s Joe Hagan, Hewitt pitched the idea of a new PBS show, which sounds an awful lot like a revamped 60 Minutes: “With general reality being shoved aside by NBC, ABC and CBS for contrived reality TV, public television is in a position to bring back CBS-style news,” Hewitt said. “In that regard, I think an hour of television a week, devoted to two, three or four well-crafted, judiciously edited documentaries on a variety of subjects would be a winner.”
“I want to do it 60 Minutes-style,” said Hewitt.
Hewitt strikes a tone of idealism with his call for “reality” in TV news, as opposed to “contrived reality.” However, his broadcast hasn’t always meshed very well with the concept of reality or news. Indeed, CBS’ 60 Minutes has had its share of forays into “contrived reality” and in so doing has contributed to a manipulative news culture where material presented to viewers need not correspond to reality.
Consider 1992, when NBC hit its “electronic Titanic” over a rigged piece on GM vehicles that seemed to suggest they caught fire easily. Concealed from viewers was the fact that incendiary devices had been placed underneath the vehicles, causing them to burst into flame. CBS was quick to tell the L.A. Times that “[CBS] standards forbid the sort of staging that got NBC into trouble.” Hewitt himself told media back then “If that had happened at ’60 Minutes’ I’d be looking for a job tomorrow.” He added, “For the life of me, I can’t figure out why anybody would do that. It’s not something anybody at 60 Minutes would do.”
Walter Olson, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, was quick to expose CBS’s hypocrisy, in a devastating article titled “It Didn’t Start With Dateline NBC,” published in National Review on June 21, 1993. Call it the CBS “Cold Case” files: incidents of journalistic malfeasance that have yet to be fully prosecuted.
Olson cited the following incidents:
December 1980: “60 Minutes” reported that the “CJ” Jeep was dangerously stable, and tipped over easily. Olson discovered testers had put the Jeeps through 435 runs to get 8 rollovers. A single Jeep was used 201 times to get 4 rollovers, suggesting degraded tire tread and other key safety margins were contributing but unacknowledged factors. Robot drivers twisted the steering wheel at rates almost doubling that used in emergency driving, while gunning the accelerator.
March 1981: An Emmy-winning “60 Minutes” segment showed scary scenarios of tire rims on heavy trucks flying off, shredding dummies nearby. Withheld from viewers was the fact the metal rims had been “modified” to get them to unravel. Olson discovered ultimately 70% of the rims had to be been shaved down to get the desired effect. “Should 60 Minutes have to give back its Emmy?” asked Olson. “Nah. Maybe they can just take the statuette to a machine shop and have 70% of it filed off.”
In 1986 “60 Minutes” turned its attack journalism on the Audi 5000, despite the fact Audi had one of the best safety records on the road. “Sudden acceleration” was the hobgoblin now, and Olson quipped that the segment presented Audis as though they had been possessed: backing into garages, darting into swimming pools, plowing into bank teller lines, doing everything but flying on a broomstick ?even as drivers were standing on the brake. Audi lawyers claimed that the “expert” in the segment, William Rosenbluth, had drilled a hole in the car’s transmission, and attached a hose leading to tank of compressed air or fluid. Even though the tank and attached hose were sitting on the front passenger seat of the Audi, those intrepid investigative reporters at 60 Minutes managed to keep any view of the tank off camera and out of the awareness of viewers.
There are some common threads between these examples of 60 Minutes faux-news. William Rosenbluth, the “expert” who reportedly modified the Audi, was actually an expert witness testifying against the carmaker. And the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), whose dramatic footage “60 Minutes” liked to use, was actually a group founded by and made up of trial attorneys. Olson reported that an internal memo from the IIHS proposed arranging variables in the Jeep segment “to ensure rollover.” Olson also discovered Ben Kelley’s name popped often in the stories. Kelley was working at the Insurance Institute and later left as a full-time hired plaintiff’s expert and network source. He also turned up in the Dateline affair.
Is this the sort of “reality based news” the U.S. taxpayer needs to fund now? We wonder how automobile manufacturers would feel having to contribute part of their paycheck for the production of such garbage.
The above-mentioned examples are just the tip of the CBS iceberg. AIM has been monitoring and reporting on CBS gaffes longer than any other organization. AIM staff members have been interviewed by numerous TV news programs and newspapers about their CBS analyses. In June 1988, Laurence Tisch, then-president of CBS, Inc, even spoke in support of Accuracy in Media’s resolution presented at the CBS annual meeting, for CBS to hire an ombudsman or “viewers’ advocate” because of so many flawed stories at the network.
Even so, CBS went on to defend their questionable segments. On Larry King’s CNN show in 1993, Ed Bradley defended the Audi and infamous Alar apple scare stories: “First of all, they’re not mistaken. Secondly, they are true.” On the Audi matter he added, “It’s not a figment of our imagination. It actually happened, whether you believe it or not.”
Back to Don Hewitt. Did he ever apologize? On Crossfire that same year, Hewitt defended the Audi show as well by asking why had Audi recalled the vehicles after the 60 Minutes episode. Actually, it was to add an “idiot-proof” device to prevent people from shifting into gear unless their foot was on the brake.
In addition to contributing a significant library of “contrived reality” to news history, 60 Minutes and Don Hewitt have also contributed to the pattern of denial of wrongdoing by elites at the top of news organizations, a pattern Dan Rather automatically adhered to when he uttered false statements on the air in defense of the “Memogate” segment. Some humility, apologies and the return of that Emmy might be a good place to start. Is Hewitt listening?