Accuracy in Media

Unprecedented. That was the description of an appearance of Don Hewitt, the executive producer of the CBS program 60 Minutes on December 13 to deliver an apology. At the very end of the program Hewitt told viewers that about a year and a half ago, they had aired a story titled “The Mule” (quote) that now turns out to be not what we thought it was.

He said, (quote) “It was a story about a drug smuggling operation in Colombia based on a prize-winning British documentary that was shown in 15 countries. Before embarking on the story, we interviewed the producer, a man named Marc de Beaufort, whose reputation had been a good one. But to satisfy ourselves that the story he was reporting was an authentic story, we asked the DEA to confirm it, and they did.”

Hewitt showed scenes from the story, a drug courier, called a mule, allegedly swallowing 60 rubber fingers of pure heroin to carry to London. This courier being secretly filmed on the flight to London, and the producer of the documentary, Marc de Beaufort telling that the courier had arrived safely in London and delivered the pound of heroin he had carried in his stomach. That was followed by the masked alleged chief financial officer of the drug cartel claiming that he sends 20 to 30 such couriers to Britain every month.

Hewitt said that The Guardian, a British newspaper had been informed by a member of the production staff of the documentary that it was a fake. Britain?s Carlton TV, which had commissioned the film, investigated and concluded, “Substantial claims in the program were false…” The main figures were hired actors. None of them had done what the documentary claimed. Hewitt said 60 Minutes had been “taken,” and so had the viewers here and in 14 other countries where the documentary had been shown. Hewitt said, “To make amends, we felt obligated to lay it all out in detail and to ask you to, please, accept our apology.”

Apologies for serious errors on television are rare, and for 60 Minutes to admit that an entire story was a fake is truly unprecedented. We commend Don Hewitt for admitting that 60 Minutes had been fooled by a fraud. But he didn?t apologize for any damage caused by the story because there wasn?t any. The hired actors realistically demonstrated a common method of smuggling drugs. It probably did neither good nor harm. It was a fake, but it was not disinformation.

60 Minutes has aired many stories that spread bad information, causing serious harm. Its 1989 scare story about Alar, a chemical that was widely used by apple growers is a good example. It falsely claimed that Alar was a dangerous carcinogen. This caused a panic that cost apple growers millions of dollars. Another 60 Minutes story falsely claimed that amalgam dental fillings cause multiple sclerosis, scaring more people. Another smeared investigative reporter Chris Ruddy, because he found evidence that challenged the claim that former White House Deputy Counsel Vince Foster committed suicide. Hewitt should correct false stories like these.

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