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In the last five years, CBS’s 60 Minutes has become infamous for letting its left-wing ardor get way ahead of its journalistic mission. Dan Rather destroyed his own reputation in 2004 with a 60 Minutes II “expose” of President Bush’s incomplete Vietnam-era service in the Texas Air National Guard which relied on falsified documents. A CBS-appointed panel found “myopic zeal” in Rather’s professional demise, but no one would admit a political bias.
For more than 40 years, CBS has boasted of 60 Minutes as a hard-hitting news show, a weekly story of investigative gumshoes digging up dirt and accusing major business and government leaders of committing dastardly deeds against the public interest. But the history of 60 Minutes isn’t filled to the brim with brutal investigations. It has a much softer, syrupy side, and it isn’t just reserved for movie stars or rock musicians. When it comes to champions of liberalism and even the radical left, the CBS News program has rolled out a red carpet, asking softball questions and lionizing their policy stands and programs – whether they were actually “achievements” or disasters.
On September 19, a week before the new season officially began, CBS’s Lesley Stahl promoted the latest book of Jimmy Carter, and insisted that Carter was a bigger success than most presidents, including Ronald Reagan: "But when all is said and done, and many will be surprised to hear this: Jimmy Carter got more of his programs passed than Reagan and Nixon, Ford, Bush 1, Clinton or Bush 2." Carter’s utter failure to end the Iranian hostage standoff and crushing inflation and unemployment rates were somehow irrelevant to history. Stahl also gushed to Carter: "A lot of critics of yours, when you were President, say that you've been a fantastic ex-President. You hear that all the time." She said this even as she reminded viewers that Carter wrote a letter to the U.N. Security Council telling them they should oppose the first President Bush on the need for the Gulf War.
In studying 60 Minutes broadcasts from January 1, 2006 through the September 2010 season premiere, Media Research Center analysts have found a very biased pattern of soft interviews and promotional language for the American left:
Liberals were featured more than twice as often than conservatives, and were four times more likely to be awarded easygoing interviews. Since 2006, 60 Minutes has aired 35 interviews with liberal leaders and celebrities versus 17 with conservatives. Twenty-four of the 35 interviews with liberals (69 percent) were friendly and unchallenging. Only five of the 17 conservative segments (29 percent) were soft – and one unchallenged conservative was hammering Sarah Palin as utterly unqualified for national office..
Barack Obama was a major beneficiary of 60 Minutes admiration. CBS has devoted hours of air time to the promotion of Barack Obama – five interviews before the election, and six after it, all reported by Steve Kroft. Of the 49 Kroft questions in the first four CBS interviews (before the financial crisis hit), 42 were personal or horse-race questions. Only seven focused on issues – five on foreign policy, and two on trade – with no real focus on any domestic issues. Kroft never focused a question on Obama scandals, or his record in the Illinois legislature. Even issue questions were soft and open-ended. Kroft's interviews were even made into a DVD for nostalgic Obama supporters, Obama All Access.
Other candidates for president were not granted the same red carpet as Obama. The contrast was striking to Scott Pelley's 2008 bailout interview with John McCain: "But why would you let the Wall Street executives sail away on their yachts and leave this on the American taxpayer?" Mike Wallace's interview with Mitt Romney in 2007 was sharply personal, demanding to know if the Republican candidate had premarital sex with his wife and asking his five sons why none of them had ever joined the military.
Liberal journalists and celebrities were also celebrated, and conservative celebrities were hounded. Morley Safer championed Stephen Colbert for satirizing conservative talk show hosts and their "wildly inaccurate, but patriotic and combative noise...With all of their excesses, it was only a matter of time before someone came along to skewer them. Well, the eagle has landed." Safer also felt the pain of actor Alec Baldwin having to deal with "conservative junkyard dogs like Sean Hannity." But Mike Wallace confronted Bill O'Reilly: "You are addicted to the power, you are addicted to the money, you are addicted to the fact that ‘I am Bill O'Reilly, and everybody knows it.'"
A review of the recent output of 60 Minutes should cause media historians to restrain themselves before declaring that this program is a hallmark of hard-hitting journalism, without a political axe to grind. They either carry an axe or a shoe-shine kit.