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Why Charles Lewis left 60 Minutes and the corruption of news

Among many news watchers, the venerable CBS News program 60 Minutes is seen as a hard-hitting investigative show. I was never overly impressed with it and never watch it unless I am pointed to a segment for some reason or other. A real investigative reporter Charles Lewis, founder of the Center for Public Integrity that produces some excellent news stories and whose work I have long admired, recounts his own story of being hired as a producer on that show and also working at ABC News.

He says that when he went into that kind of reporting, he knew that he would be going up against powerful interests and that they would seek all kinds of ways to intimidate him to stop him uncovering and reporting the truth. What he was not prepared for was that some of his toughest adversaries would be within the news organizations he worked for.

But when I embarked on this profession, I was in many ways prepared for all that—for the threats, the lawsuits and the general hostility. That was just the cost of doing business. What I didn’t foresee, what floored me and frustrated me, was that sometimes the biggest obstacles in the pursuit of what Carl Bernstein calls “the best obtainable version of the truth” came from the inside—from my bosses and my bosses’ bosses who, despite their professed support, had no real interest in publishing the hardest-hitting stories.

It became painfully apparent over time that network television news was not especially interested in investigative reporting, certainly not to the extent or the depth of the best national print outlets.

But I had also seen things at two networks that had troubled me profoundly: nationally important stories not pursued; well-connected, powerful people and companies with questionable policies and practices that were not investigated precisely because of the connections and the power they boasted.

The last straw for Lewis was when 60 Minutes and its correspondent Mike Wallace tried to gut his story about how former government officials were acting as agents for foreign governments, because too many influential people were targeted by it and they were exerting pressure on CBS. One the people named in his piece was Pete Peterson, former Commerce Secretary, who was a close friend of Don Hewitt, executive producer of the show. It became clear to Lewis after many postponements that his piece would not air unless Peterson’s name was removed and he finally caved. (Pete Peterson is still peddling has bogus panic over the deficits in order to push his conservative agenda such as cutting Social Security, Medicare, and other government programs.)

Lewis says that that episode caused something to snap inside him and he quit immediately after the show aired, something that people working for 60 Minutes, considered the most prestigious job in TV news, never did.

Many people, then and since, have asked me what exactly I was thinking—after all, I was walking away from a successful career full of future promise. Certainly, quitting 60 Minutes was the most impetuous thing I have ever done. But looking back, I realize how I’d changed. Beneath my polite, mild-mannered exterior, I’d developed a bullheaded determination not to be denied, misled or manipulated. And more than at any previous time, I had had a jarring epiphany that the obstacles on the way to publishing the unvarnished truth had become more formidable internally than externally. I joked to friends that it had become far easier to investigate the bastards—whoever they are—than to suffer through the reticence, bureaucratic hand-wringing and internal censorship of my employer.

In a highly collaborative medium, I had found myself working with overseers I felt I could no longer trust journalistically or professionally, especially in the face of public criticism or controversy—a common occupational hazard for an investigative reporter. My job was to produce compelling investigative journalism for an audience of 30 million to 40 million Americans. But if my stories generated the slightest heat, it was obvious to me who would be expendable.

This is why there is now a proliferation of smaller and more independent investigative news outlets. They are filling a vacuum. The smaller you are, the less likely that the organization’s top people are moving in the same circles as the people who should be the subjects of close scrutiny.

Comments

  1. says

    The police-instigated mess in Ferguson has shown where real journalism is happening anymore: people on Twitter, of all cockamamie things. The mass media, for the most part, have abandoned news for newsertainment, a useless and space-filling substitute for substantive newsgathering.

    When Stewart, Oliver, and Colbert are more reliable and trsutworthy news sources than the former homed of Murrow and Woodward, it’s got to be a sign of something.

  2. Rob Grigjanis says

    Dan Rather in 2006:

    “In many ways on many days, [reporters] have sort of adopted the attitude of ‘go along, get along.'”

    “What many of us need is a spine transplant”, Rather added. “Whether it’s City Hall, the State House, or the White House, part of our job is to speak truth to power.”

    Shortly thereafter, he was dropped by CBS.

    PBS had a show called Now with Bill Moyers, which did real news stories, with some depth. With Kenneth Tomlinson in charge of the CPB, its funding didn’t last long, although it ran in shorter form (and without Moyers) for another few years.

  3. JPS says

    The journalistic integrity of 60 Minutes has been suspect for decades.

    Sometime in the ’80s I obtained a videotape 60 Minutes: Our Response produced by the Illinois Power Company. CBS had contacted them because they were doing a report on the construction of nuclear power plants like the one that the power company was constructing at the time. The power company said they’d participate, but they’d record everything that 60 Minutes did.

    Many statements in the CBS report mis-quoted, mis-characterized, or directly contradicted what we saw the the power company tell the CBS producers or correspondent. In one case in the 60 Minutes report the correspondent showed a construction timeline and pointed to a two-week block he said represented “final inspection”. He said that no other power plant construction had done final inspection in two weeks and that typically it took six months. Cut to the previous conversation at Illinois Power: The correspondent is told that one line on the timeline which spans a whole year represents the elements of final inspection, which is then reported during the two week span on the next line down. Oh, and when the correspondent pointed to what he called “final inspection” he was on the wrong bit of the timeline. There were several other bits of blatant mis-reporting.

    IIRC Morly Safer was the correspondent for that piece. When I called Illinois Power to arrange for a copy of the videotape (no online video — actually no online at all — at the time) I said that I’d seen in the newspaper just that morning that Safer had been rated the “most trusted journalist”. “Not around here!” was the reply.

    The response video appears to be online. I found it a few months ago, but don’t have the link right now. It runs about a half-hour.

    I’ve not trusted a 60 Minutes report since seeing that response videotape.

    (I’m doing this from three-decade-old memory.)

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