Is 60 Minutes Informing the Public–or Producing Informants?

Lesley Stahl (cc photo: British Columbia)

Lesley Stahl (cc photo: British Columbia)

60 Minutes seems proud of the fervor spawned by its scurrilous and inaccurate attack on disabled people. (See Peter Hart’s “What Did 60 Minutes Get Wrong About Disability?,” FAIR Blog, 10/7/13.) A week after airing the report, the show’s Lesley Stahl commented on viewer mail: 

In The Mail, comments on Steve Kroft’s story about waste and fraud in the Social Security disability system. Many viewers thought it was long overdue. “I have worked for a law firm that does disability work for twelve years. The abuse of the system that I have seen is terrible.”

But other viewers called the story unfair to the legitimately disabled.

“I have yet to see a more BIASED, Republican-pandering news report. You sure FAILED on this one.” “Disability benefits are hard to obtain. Two-thirds of the applications are rejected.”

We were surprised at how many people offered to turn in their disability-collecting neighbors and relatives. One viewer accused a woman down the street of secretly cleaning houses. Another viewer pointed the finger at a not-so-disabled stepson and one man complained about his malingering mother-in-law.

Journalists excited to hear that their report made their audience eager to inform on their neighbors and family members: It sounds like the viewer’s mailbag at the end of an East German TV news show.

Sixty years ago, CBS‘s Edward R. Murrow implored his colleagues to conquer fear and forge ahead with an expose of  Sen. Joseph McCarthy (See It Now, 3/9/54). According to Murrow’s colleague, See It Now producer Joseph Wershba:

Edward R. Murrow on Time magazine

Edward R. Murrow

When we looked at the near-final cut of the McCarthy broadcast and the staff showed fear of putting it on the air, Murrow spoke a line that landed like a lash across our backs: “The terror is  right here in this room.” And later: “No one man can terrorize a whole nation unless we are all his accomplices.” When someone asked what he would say on the McCarthy broadcast, he replied, “If none of us ever  read a book that was ‘dangerous,’ nor had a friend who was ‘different,’ or never joined an organization that advocated ‘change,’ we would all be just the kind of people Joe McCarthy wants.”

What a drop from the top. Murrow emboldened his CBS colleagues to fight against McCarthy’s terror; now CBS News is terrorizing disabled people.

About Steve Rendall

Senior Media Analyst and Co-producer of CounterSpin Steve Rendall is FAIR's senior analyst. He is co-host of CounterSpin, FAIR's national radio show. His work has received awards from Project Censored, and has won the praise of noted journalists such as Les Payne, Molly Ivins and Garry Wills. He is co-author of The Way Things Aren't: Rush Limbaugh's Reign of Error (The New Press, 1995, New York City). Rendall has appeared on dozens of national television and radio shows, including appearances on CNN, C-SPAN, CNBC, MTV and Fox Morning News. He was the subject of a profile in the New York Times (5/19/96), and has been quoted on issues of media and politics in publications such as the Chicago Tribune, Washington Post and New York Times. Rendall contributed stories to the International Herald Tribune from France, Spain and North Africa; worked as a freelance writer in San Francisco; and worked as an archivist collecting historical material on the Spanish Civil War and the volunteers who fought in it. Rendall studied philosophy and chemistry at San Francisco State University, the College of Notre Dame and UC Berkeley.