Newspaper article International New York Times

'60 Minutes' Misplaces Its Skepticism

Newspaper article International New York Times

'60 Minutes' Misplaces Its Skepticism

Article excerpt

Viewers expect and deserve the show to bring its best when it takes on a huge issue like the N.S.A., to serve as a stand-in for the American people and ask the uncomfortable questions.

Last week, a study commissioned by the president concluded that the National Security Agency had reached too far into the private lives of Americans. The study, which came after a series of journalistic revelations exposing the agency's surveillance practices, recommended numerous reforms that would curb the N.S.A.'s prerogatives. President Obama said he was "open to many" of the suggestions.

It was exactly the kind of news-making moment that "60 Minutes" - - America's leading purveyor of serious television news -- has often been responsible for creating. For more than four decades, the program has exposed C.I.A. abuses, rogue military contractors and hundreds of corporate villains.

But where was "60 Minutes" on the N.S.A. story? The Sunday before the damning study, the program produced a segment that scanned as a friendly infomercial for the agency. Reported by John Miller, a CBS News reporter, the piece included extensive interviews with Gen. Keith Alexander, the director of the N.S.A.

In a scene that served as something of a metaphor for the whole segment, the producers negotiated access to the Black Chamber, a supersecret area where the nation's top code breakers work. The door is briefly opened, we see a deserted office hall that looks like any other and then the door is closed. We get a look in, but we learn nothing.

Coming as it does on the heels of the now-discredited Benghazi report -- in which "60 Minutes" said it had been fooled by an eyewitness who was apparently nothing of the kind -- the N.S.A. segment raises the question of whether the program has not just temporarily lost its mojo, but its skepticism as well. It didn't help that the day after the piece aired, a federal judge ruled that the agency's program of collecting phone records was most likely unconstitutional.

In between its coverage of Benghazi and the N.S.A., "60 Minutes" drew criticism for letting Amazon promote a drone delivery program that is years from actually happening, if it happens at all. It was a fanciful look at the commercial future, though Charlie Rose, the reporter, also asked Jeff Bezos, the chief executive of Amazon, some tough questions: whether providing cloud services to the C.I.A. was a conflict, and whether the company's "ruthless" pursuit of market share was fair.

Let's stipulate that "60 Minutes" has been and continues to be a journalistic treasure, which just this year has done hard-hitting pieces on the damaging practices of credit report agencies, the high rate of suicide among returning veterans and how tainted pain medication that caused fungal meningitis killed dozens and sickened hundreds. Mr. Rose also landed an interview with the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, about chemical weapons. At a time when both the definition and execution of news has dimmed, "60 Minutes" stands out.

Historically, the news that "60 Minutes" was in the lobby or on the phone has struck fear in the hearts of both the stalwart and the venal. The show made its targets quake and audiences thrill as it did the hard, often amazing work of creating consequence and accountability.

But in the last few months, there have been significant lapses into credulousness, when reporters have been more "gee whiz" than "what gives?" The news that "60 Minutes" is calling could be viewed as less ominous and more of an opportunity. More than once this year, the show has traded skepticism for access.

When it comes to the access game, everyone, even "60 Minutes," plays ball on occasion. When it seeks to lighten things up, as it did with Taylor Swift, or Maggie Smith of "Downton Abbey," no one expects hidden cameras or brutal interrogations. Everyone, including the audience, knows the score.

But viewers expect the show to bring its A game, and deserve it, when it takes on a huge issue like the N. …

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