60 Minutes, CBS News’ hour-long Sunday newsmagazine, had a good run during its 45 year history, during which its target cohort had kids and retired to Florida. But as the last month indicates—Benghazi! Amazon drones! NSA!—it’s time for the glossy production to clean house. Or, more likely, die.
To recap: On Sunday 60 Minutes aired an inside look at the NSA, whose leaders and employees were depicted by host John Miller as wronged victims of their old colleague, the leaker Edward Snowden. The report was transparently flawed: Miller is a former deputy for the Director of National Intelligence; interviews with NSA employees were monitored by dozens of agency minders; and producers neglected to interview a single NSA critic. It was like watching the agency play T-Ball, with CBS’ equipment, and Miller narrating the game as if it were the World Series.
And CBS needed a home run. Earlier this month, CBS aired a credulous interview with Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, who used the segment to unveil his grand plan to have unmanned octocopters deliver merchandise. The plan is preposterous—it would send whirring blades, piloted by GPS only, into residential areas—and currently illegal under FAA guidelines. But Amazon could not have asked for a better advertisement: A glowing portrait on one of the few broadcast shows that purportedly speaks truth to power.
Yet that same truth-speaking has troubled the show, too. In early November host Lara Logan was forced to retract a marquee scoop she’d delivered a week prior—an exclusive interview with “Morgan Jones,” the pseudonym of a British military contractor named Dylan Davies who alleged lax security standards at the American consulate in Benghazi, Libya, which came under attack in September 2012. Davies had lied—he had never alighted the consulate; he had never, as he claimed, killed a terrorist with his own bare hands. Logan and her producer were forced to go on leave (and are scheduled to return early next year).
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60 Minutes is a strange show in today’s media market. It’s the most-watched show in the history of television, yet is subsidized almost entirely by advertising aimed at retirees. And despite its archive of high-profile snafus, it enjoys a permanent Important Organ of Journalism status. It’s an even stranger show within the confines of CBS, where 60 Minutes producers have long operated out of their own special silo, away from the rest of CBS News. They even have their own Midtown studio, across the street from the news division’s headquarters.
Creating a massive broadcast success out of a tiny bubble is a high-wire act, though, and 60 Minutes keeps on tumbling down. That’s one reason Dylan Davies managed to trick the show’s producers: They never bothered to ask their CBS News colleagues with better government intelligence sources to vet his story. That might also be why it never occurred to Logan to disclose that her husband spread military propaganda during the Iraq War. Who was going to tell her otherwise?
60 Minutes has produced fantastic journalism, won hundreds of well-deserved awards, and otherwise worked very hard to create a space for serious journalism in a medium that rewards maximum vapidness. But those accomplishments can only be described in the past tense. Nothing is forever. It’s time to tear it down and build something new.