Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Like Father Like Son

During the late 1970s, 60 Minutes on CBS was in its heyday with an expanding audience in the pre-Internet world, but my father stopped watching out of disgust. At first I did not understand. The 60 minutes crew would investigate an issue, find out who was the bad guy and, on camera, trip up the bad guy in his or her own words. Of course, 60 minutes always won. The designated bad guy often stumbled on camera, caught in his or her own apparent lie. Or, the bad guy's smooth response would be followed immediately by a blanket statement of fact by a 60 minutes correspondent or a hired outside expert for the show, explaining why the statement you heard from the bad guy was false. The power to edit is the power to destroy, and 60 minutes was not afraid to exercise that power. The star prosecutor of 60 minutes in those days was Mike Wallace, who continued on the show until 2006. He became famous for this brand of "gotcha" journalism. So I started to understand something was wrong with this "unbiased" approach.

Another popular correspondent on the show was Ed Bradley, who was to speak at a conference I attended in the late 1990s. The TV show's gotcha tactics had become somewhat controversial by this point and I looked forward to Bradley's explanation and defense of their methods. Bradley's most telling point was that 60 minutes was "trying to tell a story, that's all." This was startling. I thought for sure he would say they were searching for some intrinsic truth, deep understanding, or whatever. In the end, the message was clear. Do not watch 60 minutes as a search for truth. Watch for a great storytelling.

Having seen the mainstream media continue to struggle with their appropriate role when reporting on politics over the past three decades, the takeaway is clear. They are great storytellers. That is their role.

Ironically, one of the key media moments of the current campaign was the exchange between Chris Wallace, Mike's son, and Hillary Clinton regarding the Comey report and Comey testimony before Congress. Anyone watching his prey backed into a corner would have to agree - Dad would be proud.

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