Back in the late 90s, a local news manager I was close to told me a story about Don Hewitt. He said that when Hewitt and Mike Wallace -- the creator and executive producer of 60 Minutes and the show's legendary investigative reporter, respectively -- visited a meeting of CBS affiliate managers, they addressed the troops then made themselves available for a Q & A session. After a little perfunctory back-and-forth, someone asked a question that made perfect sense given that, to some extent, the future of CBS News could eventually hinge on its answer: "What's going to happen to 60 Minutes and CBS's news operation in general once you guys either retire or die?" According to the story, Hewitt and Wallace stopped, seemingly taken aback, looked at each other incredulously, and then Hewitt leaned into the mic and said, "Well, to be honest we haven't really considered that."
Don Hewitt and Mike Wallace are now both gone and 60 Minutes, the show they were the custodians of through its rise to the very top of the television journalism heap, did in fact continue on in their absence. But their attitude -- their arrogance, which could easily be argued was hard-earned and well-deserved at the time -- may be part of the reason 60 Minutes is in the mess it currently is. For years the flagship program that's defined CBS News has operated in rarefied air and those at the helm of it have likely convinced themselves of their infallibility. I have no doubt that in the eyes of Jeff Fager, the current EP of 60 Minutes and the chairman of CBS News itself, the easiest way to tell whether a story is legitimate is to simply ask yourself one question: did it air on 60 Minutes? If it did -- it is. 60 Minutes is so used to being above reproach that I'm not sure it can fathom getting something so big so wrong.
But it did. It screwed up royally. And because of the journalistic arrogance at the center of 60 Minutes both as an institution and an entire ethos, I'm not sure it fully understands just how bad the situation is and what needs to be done about it. It's ironic that if you go back and look at many of the scandals the show has reported on over the years, political and otherwise, the common denominator will usually be that it was never the initial act that caused the problem, it was the cover-up. It was the lack of an appropriate, above-the-board response. That's where 60 Minutes is right now. It made an almost incomprehensible mistake, it's true, but the show's seeming unwillingness to properly address that mistake is what's going to be its undoing, at least in the eyes of those who take journalism seriously.
But it appears that 60 Minutes isn't really concerned about any of that. And the reason why could highlight another reality about the mainstream media that I've written about many times before: 60 Minutes simply doesn't worry about taking fire from the left or the center. When 60 Minutes II botched the George W. Bush National Guard story, it launched a thorough independent investigation that led to drastic action that included the end of Dan Rather's career with CBS and ultimately the canceling of 60 Minutes II entirely. It took this action because conservative media demanded it as part of a coordinated effort to hold the news magazine's feet to the fire.
Not only is the right better at beating down news organizations until they submit, they generally find a receptive audience because the dirty little secret at the center of most mainstream news operations is that they live in fear of offending the right. They're well aware of the accusations of a liberal bias -- tired accusations by now, and ones that are usually leveled with the hope of satisfying a political agenda -- and desperately want to avoid confirming anyone's suspicions. In other words, they overcompensate. Big time. I've seen it happen over and over again; I've sat in meetings where stories were edited severely, watered-down, or killed outright -- regardless of their basis in cold, hard fact -- because of the unstated but understood fear that they might validate the time-honored charge that the media are inherently liberal.
The right is excellent at putting pressure on news organizations to conform to a way of covering stories that is both unfair and won't win them a damn bit of respite from the relentless hectoring anyway. The left and center, meanwhile, have never had any real recourse because news outlets have never seen them as a threat. Mainstream media mistakenly assume that they'll always be given the benefit of the doubt by those without a political axe to grind, those simply looking for the truth as opposed to a version that satisfies their firmly held biases. 60 Minutes could very well be falling back on this faulty way of thinking -- and it's now learning the error of its ways in the strongest possible terms. This time it isn't a coordinated attack from the right demanding that it come clean and it isn't just a very clear demand from the left -- it's a lot of people in between, the ones who simply know the truth from a lie and who've spent a long time trusting in the journalistic integrity of 60 Minutes, wanting to know exactly how one of the most hallowed names in news blew it.
Maybe if Hewitt and Wallace were still around, their belief in their own journalistic immortality would've prevented them from seeing a mistake at 60 Minutes the size of the Benghazi screw-up. Maybe. But I'd like to believe that they took their reputations and that of their creation so seriously that had they been proven wrong they would've walked through fire to make it right. That's exactly what those who now carry the torch they passed should be doing.