Monday Musings: 60 Minutes

60_minutes

When I was growing up in the 1980’s, my parents and I ate Sunday dinner every week at my grandparents’ house. When supper commenced, my grandfather put down his newspaper, turned on the ceiling fan, adjusted the number of bulbs burning in the overhead light, and switched the channel to ABC News. That was the ritual. Although I found the sound of Sam Donaldson’s voice strangely comforting, I was more interested in what came after the news, when I would plop down in front of the immovable cabinet television to watch 60 Minutes, my toes flicking the brass handles of its fake drawers.

60 Minutes was like the “Unexplained Mysteries” of politics. Behind-the-scenes, investigative journalism that revealed exactly what people in Washington were up to. I was very fascinated by all the intrigue. “Why would the Department of Defense spend $52.00 each on screws when you can buy them down at the ACE Hardware for ten cents?” I would ask my grandfather. “What’s a Sandinista?” He would adjust the toothpick in his mouth and settle into his recliner, grinning at me. “Who is Zapruder?”

Looking back, I don’t know how much of the “full story” 60 Minutes ever told. I’m not sure any news show that tops the ratings consistently is primarily focused on getting the truth out. But the show did teach me that things are never really as they seem, especially in the U.S. government — something I still keep in the back of my mind at all times. Especially after living through three Bush administrations. 60 Minutes taught me one of the most important aspects of being a citizen of a democracy: it is our duty to question what our government is doing. Pay attention. Get outraged.

The creator of 60 Minutes, Don Hewitt, died a couple weeks ago. I think as his influence on the show waned over the years, the quality of the reporting has already declined. His death makes me wonder if it will continue to ask difficult questions or if it will join the rest of the mainstream media in being yet another paid mouthpiece, relaying the stories that advance certain agendas and not the ones that might injure them.  (Please watch the documentary Orwell Rolls in His Grave about mass media in the modern age.)

My freshman year of college, my roommate Melissa and I were taking a great journalism class. Our professor told us about a media event happening at a neighboring university in town one evening, so we decided to see if we could crash it. Food Lion, a supermarket chain here in North Carolina, had recently won punitive damages in a lawsuit after ABC employees got jobs in their meat and seafood departments and captured unsanitary practices on camera. ABC News’s Nightline was in town to film a special live episode featuring a panel discussion between Food Lion executives and journalists, debating the ethics of undercover reporting. Don Hewitt was on the panel, along with former U.S. Senator Alan Simpson, and ABC News Chief Roone Arledge.

So Melissa and I marched into the auditorium, down to the very front row. Melissa snatched some “reserved” signs from two chairs, and we sat down. Only one person tried to question our presence, and Melissa, who had an air of complete belonging wherever she went, said, “Oh, Uncle Don said we could sit here.” Uncle Don totally kicked ass. He tore down the Food Lion execs. He talked about freedom of the press and all kinds of important things involving media in a democracy. He reminded us that in a democracy, a network news organization — for its often superficial and less-than-cerebral approach to complex issues — is about the last line of defense against corporations that do scummy things to their customers and try to get away with it. That a  business that pumps as much money into a local economy as Food Lion will not be opposed by any local media organization, print or electronic, for fear of losing piles of ad revenue. That government cannot be everywhere at all times, and has frequently relied on “60 Minutes” and their ilk to help identify corporate evildoers. And that some of us would rather not have to wait until another fast-food-joint e.coli panic sweeps the nation to hear about unsafe food handling practices from our major news organizations.

That night Melissa and I met a former senator, Diane Sawyer, and Ted Koppel, but Don Hewitt was the one who most impressed us. I think America has lost one of the good guys, who was willing to actually stand up and speak out. He was not born into a wealthy or influential family, was never handed anything, and worked his way into success. Uncle Don was once awarded a Peabody for his accomplishments that “touched the lives of just about every American.” I know he touched mine.

Don Hewitt

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