Posts Tagged ‘60 Minutes’

David McCullough says We’re Historically Illiterate

July 2, 2013

It’s not a new phenomenon.  Some students who excel in math and computer courses flunk or do poorly in history courses. I’ve known a few.

There are good reasons for that. For instance, once a math geek understands the logic of math problem solving,  he/she can figure out answers without doing a lot of homework.  Not so with history.  You have  to read and remember what you have read to pass history tests.

Another is that so many young people don’t believe history has any practical  value.  Who cares about all of those historical dates? Besides, memorizing them is a pain in the neocortex.

Anyone who  reflects on the  fact that  we are our histories has to see the value of studying the subject.  The same is true for our  country. How can you possibly know who you are if you don’t know who  you were?  The moment a thought enters your head it’s history. As some philosophers tell us, there is no present, only past and future.

My favorite historian, bestseller David McCullough, who wrote, among other things, histories of  Presidents John  Adams,  Truman,  and the building of the Brooklyn Bridge and the  Panama Canal,  is quite concerned that our country has become, in his view, historically illiterate.  That’s what he  told Morley Safer on 60 Minutes.

He says that thought really came to him when a young Western U.S. college student revealed to him that she didn’t know the original 13 colonies were all east of the Alleghenies.  He said he ran into similar experiences at other colleges where he spoke..

He blames not just the  students and their teachers, but all of us.  It is important for parents to encourage their children to learn the  stories of  history and to discuss family  history with them.. As for as history teachers are concerned, they should emphasize the stories of history, not dates.  This is not  a new idea, and I know some very good history professors who have practiced that for a long time, but it doesn’t hurt to remind those who  don’t.

So, tonight when your family  is gathered around the supper table,  direct some of the  conversation toward family and American history.   Of course, you’ll have  to make them stop texting first.


Television’s Intellectual Ghetto is Still Somewhat with Us

July 1, 2013

Thank goodness!

The term “intellectual ghetto” was originated by TV critics years ago.

Since the inception of network television,  Sunday has been the main day for the networks to broadcast  their “prestige” programs.  Fortunately,  the tradition is being continued by CBS, which has been running two great magazine programs, CBS News Sunday Morning and 60 Minutes for decades. CBS News Sunday Morning has been on the air since January of  1979.  60 Minutes, which is more investigative, went on the air on September 24, 1968. Wikipedia tells us that in 2002, the program was ranked number 6 on TV Guide’s 50 Greatest TV Shows of All Time.  It is also credited with being the most successful program in the history of television.  I’m glad.

On this weekend before the 4th of July, Morley Safer repeated a compelling and engrossing piece with historian David McCullough.  I’ll have more on that. Stay tuned.

The Case Against Audience Research for TV News Departments

November 26, 2012

It is good to know that at least one important news executive believes that broadcast news is still a public service.  That’s what  Jeff Fager, CBS News Chairman and 60 Minutes Executive Producer, told Arizona State Walter Cronkite Journalism School students recently, and I was fortunate enough  to hear the lecture on C-span.

“We are approaching a story in a smart way, a focused way that helps people better understand what is happening in the world,” he told  them.  “It’s about telling a story and it’s about reporting, how good a reporter are you? How well can you dig things up? How well do you  find things out?”

He explained how retired 60 Minutes Executive Producer Don Hewitt influenced him, saying  that what Hewitt believed goes against all the conventional wisdom you hear about in news today.  “We never did audience research. We still don’t believe in it. I don’t believe in it.” However, it drives many news decision-makers now.  It may tell you not to do a story because it’s not visual and the audience doesn’t care about it.  He said he knew serious journalists who  run news organizations who would not cover the war in Afghanistan because research told them it was a turn off.  He says they are wrong.  A hundred thousand Americans are risking their lives in a war zone.  What  he didn’t say, but what I do say is that such behavior is irresponsible for anyone who calls himself a member of the Fourth Estate.  News media have a civic responsibility in a democracy such as ours. 

The truly important point he made, in my view, because it is one I tried to make repeatedly when I was still in the business, is that you cover a story because you think it is important  and you make it interesting.  It is up to you, the reporter, to do that, to make it interesting. 

For those who don’t buy the no-audience-research news philosophy, you need to take a look at the most successful news program in the  history of television.  60 Minutes has been on the air for 45 years  and has been and still is phenomenally successful. It is a ratings champion, still  often in the top ten. It is a combination of hard-noised investigative reporting and some stories about celebrities.   Fager says he plans to cut back on the celebrity stories and make the program even more relevant. The stories are not selected because of audience  research, but because the people who manage 60 Minutes believe they are important, important enough to do well.

Fager says CBS News will continue to follow the tradition established by people like Edward R. Murrow, Fred Friendly, and Walter Cronkite. It will continue to challenge authority. It will take risks.  It will report from war zones. These are  things many news decision-makers don’t do because they are dangerous, expensive, and risky, but CBS News will.

Now, if we can just get the rest of the broadcast news world to follow their lead.  When is the last time you saw a truly important local investigative report on a controversial subject?  For many  years, even though we did not have the resources of CBS News, we use to do some digging, some investigative reporting, a lot more reporting on what legislators in Atlanta and Montgomery were up to. We didn’t rule them out because they might not be good TV picture stories. We made them interesting, and used creativity to come up with illustrative pictures, and, yes, we got good ratings.    

Also, corporate management stayed out of the newsroom. Stories were not killed because they might offend some powerful person or organization.  At  least, that was my experience. Management tried to hire capable broadcast journalists and let them do their jobs. More than once I had to be defended by station management, and I have to say that when I was a news director, they always backed me solidly.  Once, when a powerful businessman called my then boss the late Jim Woodruff, Jr. , he said to Woodruff, “You can tell them not to run that story, Jim.” Woodruff told him, “Yes, you are right. I could do that. I could tell them not to run it, and it would not run. And then I would not be able to hire a decent reporter.” Ah, the good old days.     


60 Minutes Does it Again

September 24, 2012

I have been watching 60 Minutes since the first program aired in 1968.  It is heartening to see that it remains so effective after all of these years.  Tonight’s interviews with President Obama and Governor Romney gave me the best insight into these two candidates for President so far, especially in the case of Governor Romney.  After observing the president for almost four years, I feel that I know him pretty well, but I didn’t feel that I knew his challenger.  I feel I do know him better now. 

Who will win? If the election were held today, I think the president would keep his job. Anything can happen between now and November 6th.  The debates could make the difference. We’ll get a better idea about that in ten days when the first one will be held. 

Mike Wallace and Me

April 9, 2012

When a broadcast journalist giant like Mike Wallace dies,  the natural reaction is to think about the time I met him.  Al Fleming and I had gone to the CBS studios in Manhattan to record promos with him and Dan Rather.  While we did them together with Dan, we recorded them separately with Mike.

This is a CBS still photo that was sent to me and Al following our promo recording session with Dan Rather in New York. There was also one of Al and me individually with Mike Wallace, but that was lost years ago.

Dan was quite sociable and we had a nice chat with him when we recorded the promos with him on the CBS Evening News set. I reminded him of the time he had visited the WRBL studios to edit an interview he had done with a West Point mill executive on brown lung disease for 60 Minutes, and we talked about that. Dan had time for us. That was not the case with Mike.  He was stationed on the set of a new daytime show (which tanked) that he was doing for CBS.  The set was dwarfed by the cavernous studio in which it had been erected. When I walked up to shake hands with him, he smiled and said hello, but immediately started yelling kiddingly across the huge studio to a pretty young co-worker, completely ignoring his guest, who happened to be me.  He carried on a yelling conversation with her until she had left the studio. He then turned to the studio crew and authoritatively said, “All right let’s do this.” We read the promos on the teleprompter screen, doing it in one take. Then he gave me a condescending smile as we said our goodbyes as he and his crew waited for the next CBS affiliate’s news anchor to come to do another promo that would run on the affiliate’s station.

So Mike had lived up to his tough, brusque reputation in my encounter with him. Al told me later that Mike hadn’t been friendly with him. Even though I reflected that to me he was an egotistical, rude man who wasn’t interested in a conversation with a small-market anchor, I nevertheless admired his ability to solicit dynamic interviews with some very important people, including a lot of crooks whom he confronted on 60 Minutes.  Just as Morley Safer and Steve Croft, who worked for years with Mike on 60 Minutes, said on CBS This Morning, Mike was highly confrontational and abrasive, but he knew how to use those qualities to get all sorts of famous, and often villanous, people to say things that would make news. And like so many others in the business, I used that direct technique from time to time to get the news subject to do the same thing.  Once, when I was doing the news for WSB in Atlanta, the late Senator Herman Talmadge called the president of Cox Broadcasting  and said that I was trying to embarrass him with a question I asked him.  I really didn’t care, because I knew the question got right to crux of the story.

Safer, whose CBS office was next door to Mike’s, said at one point that he and Mike didn’t communicate for months, because Mike, who was highly competative , would steal stories from him. Croft said the same thing.  Both also said they liked him and admired his journalistic abilities, creditin g him with being the main reason that 60 Minutes  was one of the most succesful prime time news magazine programs in broadcasting history.

I remember when he first broke into the national broadcasting scene with his highly confrontational interviews on the Mike Wallace Show on ABC in the later fifties.  His subjects would actually break into a visible sweat during the interview. I had to admit it was highly entertaining, though sometimes cruel.  Those interviews made such an impact that they were parodied on the Sid Caesar Show. Sid Caesar was one of my favorite comedians.

As CBS was showing the long list of world-famous celebrities that Mike interviewed over the  years, they said, “He even interviewed Eleanor Roosevelt.” S0 did I. I was working at WSB at the time. It aired on NBC.

All in all, I admired Mike’s journalistic ability, thought him highly entertaining, and appreciated the fact that he didn’t appear to be afraid of anyone he interviewed, including heads of state and powerful politicians and businessmen.  He indeed was a giant in broadcasting.