By: M.L. Stein
Morley Safer says his bosses should not have pulled an interview
with former tobacco company executive who attacked the industry sp.
STICKING A FINGER in the CBS corporate eye, “60 Minutes” reporter Morley Safer said the network should have been “willing to go to the wall” instead of pulling an interview with a former tobacco company executive who attacked the industry.
Safer saw the interview withdrawal as part of an “unhealthy thing that has happened to American broadcast journalism ? the loss of it to people who make such expensive knickknacks as nuclear reactors, insurance policies, jet engines and magic kingdoms, people with little knowledge, interest or affection for the rich and important history of independent newsrooms . . . . “
The newsman spoke in Los Angeles at the University of Southern California Journalism Alumni Association’s 35th annual Distinguished Achievement in Journalism Awards dinner. He was one of the awardees, along with Los Angeles Times television critic Howard Rosenberg and “Frontline,” PBS’s weekly public affairs documentary series.
Making no effort to conceal his deep disappointment over CBS’s decision to blackout the interview with the former Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp. senior scientist, Safer conceded that the company had a legitimate concern over the possibility of a multimillion dollar lawsuit if the segment aired, but added: “Should we . . . be willing to go to the wall when we, and the corporate lawyers, know we are right? No doubt we should. The truth and the First Amendment remain remarkably good armor ? unless you let them go to rust.”
Actually, Safer noted, it was only the “specter” of a lawsuit that sent CBS lawyers scurrying for cover, possibly fearing litigation would foul up the corporation’s impending merger with Westinghouse.
Safer, who has spent 30 years with CBS, 25 of them on 60 Minutes, said that up to the time CBS blocked the interview, its news broadcasts had an “impeccable record” of “never caving in.”
“We go looking for the truth, no matter where it takes us,” he asserted. “Corporate lawyers go looking at the price.”
However, Safer went on, 60 Minutes may be wounded but he termed it as “still the best, the straightest, the least likely to make deals with the Michael Jacksons or other freaks du jour. We survive nicely without Kato Kaelin or any of the Bobbits. We’re still the funniest and the sharpest. And yes, still the most likely to take on the tough stories.”
Cable News Network prime anchor and senior correspondent Judy Woodruff, who MC’d the USC event, picked her own bone with television journalism as she reprised the O.J. Simpson trial.
Between Jan. 1 and Sept. 22 of this year, she reported, the three major networks in their evening news broadcasts logged 1,302 minutes of Simpson coverage, “as much as the Bosnia war, Oklahoma City bombing and the Medicare debate combined. I don’t have the number of minutes for CNN, but it took a back seat to no one in its devotion to the Simpson story.”
Woodruff, a prize-winning journalist, allowed that the coverage fed a public appetite for the story and that viewers learned something about the legal system. But fewer Americans, she lamented, learned about Bosnia, Medicare or a critical debate in Washington about the size and role of government.
“Those of us who care about our work as journalists have to be concerned about the temptation to cater to the public’s wish to be entertained,” she said.
Woodruff feared that as competition intensifies in the news arena with cable and tabloid tv and talk shows vying with traditional broadcast outlets, “the lifeline of a democratic society ? the people’s ability and right to know ? is being threatened by mediocrity.”
Still, she said, she finds grounds for optimism in shows like 60 Minutes.
The quality television news programs, Woodruff contended, have created an expectation in part of the public “for the best journalism we can give them. If we continue to keep in mind the interests of these viewers, we’ll have more than enough to keep us busy. We’ll fight our battles when we have to, but those of us who care about good journalism must keep at it.”
Michael Sullivan, senior producer for Frontline, who accepted the award for the Boston-based PBS program, argued that the problem with television and much newspaper journalism is its tendency to give audiences “not what they need to know but what they want to know.”
He also held up the Simpson trial as a case in point, saying: “Never has there been a wider gap between the importance of a story to the lives of people and the amount of coverage that story received. It represented a total victory of the new question ? give them what they want to know.”
Even Frontline, which regards itself as “outsiders to the political culture and media centers,” was swept up in the Simpson case, Sullivan admitted. But the big play of the Simpson saga has not not stopped the downward slide of the media’s popularity, Sullivan stated.
The media, according to Sullivan, can learn a lesson from the general adulation of Gen. Colin Powell, which indicates that many people are seeking a “healthy center to our public life.”
Recalling that Powell has called on Americans to think of themselves as a family, Sullivan observed that the media’s family role is that of the “bold, unrelenting truth teller, critic and scold, a necessary role in any family.”
“But it’s how we play that role that counts,” he added.
“It seems to me that most often today, we play the part as if we didn’t’ belong to the family at all. We just stand out in the street with our flack jackets made of cool objectivity, and lob our verbal grenades through the dining room window.”
The media, Sullivan urged, should become members of the “family” by telling hard truths that matter and letting up on sleazy stories that “only seem to hurt everybody.”
“Sometimes,” he said, “we just have to say no ? not in my newspaper, not on my broadcast.”
?(CBS newsman Morley Safer (second from left) and the rest of the “60 Minutes” newsmagazine team pose with President Clinton. Safer recently criticized CBS network news bosses for pulling an interview with a former tobacco company executive who attacked the industry.) [Photo & Caption]