’60 Minutes’ Past its Prime
A format unchanged since the Ford Administration* doesn't suit the modern era.
The fact that the nutty Congresswoman Margorie Taylor Greene was to appear on the CBS News magazine “60 Minutes” was a subject of much controversy on Twitter the other day, with most arguing that it was irresponsible to give her airtime. That argument struck me as silly: like it or not, she’s a genuine public figure. And, hell, the show made its name by interviewing controversial figures, including all manner of con artists and other criminals.
Now that the show has aired, the postmortem focuses on the quality of the interview itself. This critique is more than fair.
Caleb Ecarma, Vanity Fair (“MARJORIE TAYLOR GREENE HIJACKED EVERY MINUTE ON 60 MINUTES“)
CBS’s esteemed newsmagazine broadcast 60 Minutes has spent decades building a strong reputation for journalistic “objectivity” and hard-hitting news. But on Sunday, during a widely mocked profile of Marjorie Taylor Greene, the program’s apparent aversion to bias backfired spectacularly after Lesley Stahl, one of its most distinguished correspondents, let Greene spew baseless invective with little to no pushback.
At one point Stahl specifically asked the Georgia Republican why she doesn’t use a lighter touch in wording her “over-the-top” smears. She also went so far as to describe Greene—a former QAnon enthusiast who once endorsed calls to execute top Democrats—as “smart and fearless.”
Perhaps most notable, though, was Stahl’s rather toothless response to Greene’s claim that Democrats support children “being sexualized and having transgender surgeries”—with the lawmaker adding that sexualizing kids “is what pedophiles do.”
“Wow. Okay,” Stahl replied. “But my question really is, can’t you fight for what you believe in without all that name-calling and without the personal attacks?” In other words, Stahl, the 81-year-old embodiment of Washington’s old guard press corps, was troubled not by the substance of Greene’s lie—the depiction of gay and transgender people as inherently predatory—but by the unpleasant name-calling used in its packaging.
Even 60 Minutes’ on-air fact-check, the esteemed antidotal device for right-wing disinformation, seemed comically inadequate. When Stahl raised Greene’s past claim that the 2018 Parkland school shooting was a false flag designed to induce gun control laws—a screenshot of which was shown during the segment—the lawmaker flipped the script. “I never said Parkland was a false flag…. Have you fact-checked all my statements from kindergarten through 12th grade? And in college?” she said. “And as I’ve paid my taxes and never broken a law, and the only—I got a few speeding tickets. Do we need to talk about those too?” Wow. Okay. Next question.
Meanwhile, journalists and other media figures criticized Stahl’s approach, with many contending that the interview itself was a mistake. “How are you going to tee Greene up with the pedophile stuff and not be willing or able to quickly dismantle it?” tweeted Washington Post columnist Philip Bump. “If you’re new to it and find it disdainful, OK, sure, but you owe viewers more.” Stahl’s approach to the “grooming” discourse was “an abuse of media power,” argued author and Vanity Fair contributor Jeff Sharlet, who also deemed it an example of “the vanity of the ‘center’ that refuses to see the rising tide.” Former Republican congressman Adam Kinzinger likewise condemned the interview as “insane” on the part of 60 Minutes.
Greg Sargent, WaPo (“How Marjorie Taylor Greene’s ‘pedophile’ slur made it to ‘60 Minutes’“):
CBS anchor Lesley Stahl was shocked to hear that Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene stands firmly behind her frequent claim that Democrats are “pedophiles.” On “60 Minutes,” Stahl pressed Greene on her use of the slur, and the Georgia Republican defiantly responded that it’s the truth: “They support grooming children.”
“They are not pedophiles,” Stahl rejoined incredulously. “Why would you say that?”
Stahl has been roasted online for granting Greene a plum “60 Minutes” interview, which aired Sunday night. But the real problem with this exchange is that Stahl did not show any signs of understanding the longtime role of the “pedophile” insult in right-wing discourse as an expression of deliberate bigotry against transgender Americans.
As a result, Stahl squandered a high-profile opportunity to explain to a large prime-time audience what Greene and others really intend when they use this smear.
The “pedophile” slur, a companion of the term “groomer,” is regularly applied by Republicans and right-wing media figures to Democrats and others who stand up for transgender rights, including gender-affirming treatment for adolescents. Greene cheerfully flaunted this use of the term on “60 Minutes,” which left Stahl utterly flummoxed
Not only did Greene casually conflate “sexualizing children” with transgender care, but she also is being despicably dishonest by reducing gender-affirming care to “surgeries.” Yet this conflation of support for trans youth with pedophilia slipped by, unrebutted, to a national audience. No wonder Greene told Semafor she was pleased with how the interview went.
Calling this mere “name-calling,” as Stahl did, does not communicate what is so hateful about it. And it implies a lack of awareness of the slur’s role in a discourse of deliberate dehumanization of trans people and those who minister to or validate gender dysphoria, who are said to be “grooming” children for nefarious purposes.
Matt Lewis, Daily Beast (“Marjorie Taylor Greene’s ‘60 Minutes’ Segment Was a Lesson in How Legacy Media Fails“):
The 60 Minutes interview with Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene was yet another example of how the mainstream news media has proven it can’t handle the moment.
What I am suggesting is that our antiquated 20th century figures and institutions (yes, with its still consistently high ratings, name recognition, and prestige—60 Minutes is still one of the closest things we have to a broadly respected institution that remains in this country) are no longer equipped to respond to the challenges of the moment. The sooner we admit this, the sooner we can fix it.
If you watched Sunday night’s episode, you know what I mean. What you saw was an interviewer who was likely air-dropped into a segment that was prepared and staged by a crack production team, using an antiquated style of semi-confrontational interviewing that’s ineffective on a politician as oft-removed from reality as Greene.
If 60 Minutes once made powerful people squirm and melt down, it now makes them boast, “It wasn’t so bad!”—as Greene told Semafor after the segment aired. “I don’t call you guys ‘fake news.’ I used to,” Greene also said.
Part of 60 Minutes’ appeal is (like another CBS institution, The Price Is Right) the format is almost exactly the same in 2023 as it was in 1973.
You probably already know all the beats of the tired, worn formula. Here’s the part of the segment where MTG listens to mean things people have tweeted about her. Here’s b-roll video of MTG lifting weights (see, she’s just like us!). Here’s MTG and Lesley Stahl walking down the street in MTG’s Georgia district.
I mean, an AI bot could have produced it.
Many extremely online progressives were livid with the lack of pushback from Stahl. Instead of tough follow-up questions, we got shots of the long-time CBS News correspondent furrowing her brow and making faces, presumably, to let us know when she didn’t agree.
To her credit, Stahl did ask Greene about some of her crazy past comments, such as referring to Democrats as “pedophiles.” Greene went on to rationalize the slur by explaining that “Sexualizing children is what pedophiles do to children.” This left Stahl essentially speechless—her comeback consisted of saying, “wow,” and then, “okay.” Mike Wallace, this was not.
A better-equipped reporter (and let’s be clear, while Stahl was once a reporter, but at this point in her distinguished career, she is more of a TV news personality than a dogged muckraker) might have landed a coup de grâce here. One suspects that ex-Axios reporter Jonathan Swan would have lit MTG up as he did with Trump—asking devastating follow-ups, armed with receipts. Instead, the interview just sort of moved on without much meaningful combat. Someone watching at home could be forgiven for thinking that Stahl and Greene simply agreed to disagree.
We’re witnessing a larger systemic issue here. Instead of relying on the same old packages they’ve been producing since Gerald Ford was in office, 60 Minutes (and the mainstream media, writ large) should rethink everything.
They can start with this: Instead of using media personalities and TV hosts who formed their opinions about politics decades ago, it’s time to pass the torch to a new generation of journalists who are well-sourced, real-life reporters, and not afraid to ask tough follow-up questions.
My family routinely watched the show when I was growing up, likely from its debut, and I continued to be a regular viewer well into adulthood. I can’t remember the last time I watched but Andy Rooney was still part of the cast. He died, aged 92, in 2011—just a month after his last appearance. (Indeed, I noted in my OTB obit that it had been “years” since I’d watched.)
Lewis is likely right that the octogenarian Stahl is past her prime as an interviewer. And Sargent is certainly right that she should have been better prepared on the substance of the “pedophile” charge, understanding that it’s more cultural code than a literal description.
But the broader point is that shows like “60 Minutes” don’t translate well to the modern context. There was a time when Congressmen would have been ashamed to repeat scurrilous charges on national television and would have backed off with some variation of “What I really meant was . . . .” But the MTGs and Trumps of the world have no sense of shame.
Additionally, the median “60 Minutes” viewer is 65 years old. I wonder how that impacts the coverage of someone like MTG. Most likely think she’s a bit nuts but they’re also likely to be broadly sympathetic to her views on LTBTQ matters.
*UPDATE: This description was used in Lewis’ commentary linked above. The show actually debuted in September 1968, which was at the tail end of the Johnson administration. But it was not until December 7, 1975 that the show finally settled into its current timeslot and format.
Some years ago I happened to see “60 Minutes” playing in the background. There was no sound, so I don’t know what the subject was but I have to admit my initial reaction was, “Wow, these people are old!” My assumption was that the show was still being aired as a way to sell Metamucil and support stockings to a certain demographic and when the hosts started to die off it would be put out to pasture.
@MarkedMan: It has become The Lawrence Welk show of its generation. Like James, when I was a kid we staid right there after the last sports event of the afternoon to see what would come next, but to me now, that tick, tick, tick is a call to turn the TV off and get on with the evening.
Hah! I was actually going to use Lawrence Welk in exactly the same way, but I wondered if anyone would get the reference!
Well, TV\Cable news skews frighteningly old in audience demographics (FOX “News” is even older then most others). If it were not for Social media, no on south of 55 would every be influenced at all by cable news.
I would go one step further in saying that presenting the “news”, steeped in old school journalism standards” is just dead. Any outlet that tried to do an old school news report ah la Walter Cronkite would die a quick and merciless death. You simply cannot deliver the dopamine rush with a well-balanced and dispassionate approach to current events as you can with a headline like…
There is no TV news anymore other then on PBS and While their viewership compares favorably to even the top “new” shows on FOX (about 2 million per night and skews almost as old), no one shares clips from them on you tube. To be fair the opinion shows grab a somewhat larger audience, but no one gets riled up over a PBS News Hour.
*Actual headline from CKLW radio (Canadian radio station serving Detroit in the late 60s and 70s). They didn’t have the same laws in Canada regarding trash news at the time so they were the king of “if it bleeds it leads programing which would not become “normal” in the US until the late 70s.
If you’re going to eat with the Devil, use a long spoon.
When people talk about how old-fashioned journalism is ill equipped to deal with the Trump era, while there’s some truth to that, I think this overlooks the flaws it always had. Is normalizing deranged figures, treating them with kid gloves, letting them get away with lies, etc.–really new? Remember the press’s treatment of, say, Reagan?
This is simply another example of how news organizations are ill equipped to deal with performative politicians that peddle BS. That the Stahl-MTG interview was an egregious example of the news organizations’ problem isn’t the real issue with 60 Minutes. MTG isn’t news worthy and adds nothing to our political discussion, but she does have high entertainment value. Too often 60 Minutes tries to foist off entertainment as news and this time it bit them hard.
@Kylopod: I can remember being a young man and listening to Bob Edwards on NPR interview some or another right winger and screaming at my radio to not let them get away with not answering the question, and that was when Edwards bothered to even ask a hard question.
Even in the runup to the 2nd Iraq war it was infuriating when they’d just let the Bush administration tell their lies and never question them. You’d have a story about how the U.N. inspectors have not found anything yet, but are still looking and need more time, followed up with a story about how Bush was telling them to get out of Iraq because the bombs are on their way.
In my mind, the change came when somebody decided that the wall between the news organization and the advertisers was quaint, optional, and unprofitable. Suddenly the news folks had to get in line “supporting the troops” lest the network lose advertising revenue.
CBS simply should have sent someone else.
Lesley Stahl is 81 years old.
Clearly she is ill-equipped to deal with an obnoxious overbearing tw@t who aggressively spews lies like so much projectile vomit.
And just to follow up on her successful turn on 60 Minutes, MTG is out with an ad portraying Biden as a pedophile.
I might feel differently about this if 60 Minutes was then going to do an hour on, say, Chaz Bono. Or someone like him. Or just allow trans people and/or their families to discuss all the dishonest things that MTG said on the show.
Apparently I am the demographic, but I haven’t watched the show in maybe 40 years.
Look, Marj showed us who she is, not that anyone should be (or was) surprised.
That’s about the only somewhat-possibly-maybe positive take I took out of the interview.
Seriously, it seemed to me that Lesley Stahl was flat out unprepared to take Marj on. Marj easily blew Lesley off and mockingly smiled at Lesley while she dissed her. How hard would it have been for Lesley to have her staff get the footage of Greene proudly stating that she was a Christian Nationalist? Or the Jewish Space Laser caused wildfires? And on and on etc.?
Time for a change.
Meanwhile Jon Stewart is doing bang up, hard hitting long form interviews on Apple+. Can’t imagine he would have let that go with a, “wow”. Nor would he have segments being all buddy buddy with his interviewee; nor voice overs over footage of them working out.
It isn’t the format that is the problem…it is the deference
I haven’t seen the Stewart interviews but I was going to say I dont think anyone is really doing informed, potentially confrontational interviews anymore are they? I would bet those get terminated by the politician involved. I dont think its the format per se, but rather the individual interviewer and even then any interview that actually does informed follow up questions will be viewed as biased.
A lot of shade being thrown on the highest rated CBS program in prime time that is not sports related. And a consistent top 5 rating in all of television. You may not like it but CBS’s stockholders appreciate the money generated from this show. Until this changes, anticipate no changes.
@Steve Fetter: Which lends credence to @Tony W: point.
But like @Jay L Gischer: I haven’t watched 60 minutes in 40 years.
Lol, too true. As a kid, my grandparents forced us to watch Welk. Then for my parents it was things like 60 Minutes. I can’t remember the last time I watched the show – 30 years maybe? I don’t watch live TV anymore except for sports.
And my kids – they are even more averse to live TV and the type of programming 60 Minutes offers. Speaking of which:
Like cable news, it’s dominated by the olds and is going to die out as the olds die out. For all the obsession on Twitter and the media, I just don’t think these programs are very important anymore except as a foil for the latest iteration of media criticism.
Highest rated isn’t what it used to be. The average for this season is 8.5 million total viewers, or about 2.5% of the US population, mostly older people. 30 years ago, it had ~26 total million viewers or almost 12% of the US population.
@daryl and his brother darryl:
MTG comparing Trump to Mandela, and…I’m serious…Jesus.
@steve: aside from him, Amanpour does them well as well on her pbs show. Rarely do either have walkouts. Honestly, though a good adversarial interviewer really shouldn’t care about perception of bias since that has been baked in by 40+ years of conservatives working the refs to label anything not deferential as liberal bias in the media.
Do America’s most respected journos NOT understand that disgusting & disgraceful GOPers calling Dems pedophiles is all about capturing forever the votes of the millions of benighted, mentally ill QANON followers? MTG isn’t doing this because she’s “nutty,” she’s doing it as a well-considered party-wide strategy.
My grandparents made me watch Lawrence Welk, go to church and eat white bread. My gentile grandparents, that is. My Jewish grandparents had loud arguments about issues of the day around a table often piled with typical Jewish food (Kung Pao chicken, egg rolls) and everyone cursed and laughed. I’m also morally convinced that Herb and Maribelle had sex only the three times (three kids) while I’m pretty sure Sam and Ethel were on each other any time the kids were out of the house. People who enjoyed Lawrence Welk did not enjoy healthy sex lives.
A word can be many things at once, and it’s sometimes a mistake to try to pin it down.
“Pedophile” and “groomer” occupy some weird space on the right where it’s a game to see what they can get away with, and a genuine heartfelt belief. Sure, it’s a cultural tag for the speaker, but they also believe that Democrats spend their time on Epstein’s Pedophile Island cavorting with the Jews who built the space lasers. It’s simultaneously lost all meaning by being applied everywhere is doesn’t apply, and it’s a horrifying indictment that all these people are literally pedophiles (for every definition of literally).
I want to say that it’s a floor wax and a dessert topping, you can distinguish those by how it’s being used. Here the ice cream has been dumped on the floor, the floor wax dessert topping has been applied, and the Republicans are on their hands and knees licking it up. Are they having dessert, or cleaning the floor? Not even they know.
@Gustopher: Jeebus- that last paragraph was gold. Don’t give that to us for free (I’m gonna steal it).
I would also get the reference, lol. I forgot what show we would turn on to watch (and this was in the days when you had to go the tv to change the channel) but I remember constantly catching a few minutes of The Lawrence Welk show. I stopped watching 60 Minutes many years back.
Without diving into the critiques (some of which James has put in his post) I was aware that MTG basically said all Democratic politicians are Pedophiles or something like that. The critics might be correct the MTG hijacked 60 minutes, but even with the GOP having no shame (and I agree with James, they have 0% shame to put on display) this was not a good look for the GOP. The modern GOP has been reduced to calling its opponents pedophiles…wow, just wow.
This is one of the those times where I feel, correctly in this case, that many members of the GOP base will never admit this out loud, but internally are genuinely cringing at some of the stuff that spews forth from certain politicians mouths.
I can’t add a data point on the sex life of Welk Enjoyers. My grandparents were already in their late 60s when I was born and were dead before I reached puberty.
Sooo, my father watched every music show on television at the time. That included Lawrence Welk. Welk played the accordion and so did Dad. He also watched Sonny and Cher. And Jimmy Dean. And Johnny Cash. Every. Music. Show.
We would watch a bit of Lawrence Welk together and make jokes about how Welk must have told the musicians that if the camera ever pointed at them, they must be smiling or get fined. And also we observed that the only black guy on the show was the tap dancer.
Dad was a pretty accomplished amateur musician, having been taught by Grandad, who was a professional musician and club owner. Not just accordion, but also piano and guitar. Not a bad singer, either. And, as he would note, there was a lot of skill on display, even if the style was dated.
Meanwhile, my parents kept a copy of the Kama Sutra by their bedside. Just sayin’.
@Jay L Gischer: My parents were politically conservative, so they didn’t watch Sonny and Cher (or the Smothers Brothers*), and I’d stopped watching with them by the time that Jimmy Dean and Johnny Cash had shows, but I remember watching Mitch Miller and Ted Mack’s Original Amateur Hour in addition to Ed Sullivan and Welk as a child.
*But I never missed Share a Little Tea with Goldie.
My father voted for Barry Goldwater, so I think you’d have to call him conservative politically. And yet…I guess the best way to put it is that he put people first. And music…well, he liked it all, and would listen to it all. I very much got that attitude from him – both of them.
I can’t blame Stahl overmuch. Gingrich’s Observation that there is no way to debate a shameless liar applies to the truly loony. Button hole that bozo and you’re all but sure to be left with footage of an ad-hominem pissing match about Stahl..which would be useless. Sometimes there is no good option so you have to go with the lesser-bad…and sometimes the worst thing you can do to a crazy person is let them be as crazy as they wanna be. Those who can not discern crazy of that magnitude for themselves are beyond helping anyway.
From memory, did not look this up:
Good night, sleep tight
And pleasant dreams to you
Here’s a wish and a song,
May all your dreams come true
So long till we meet again,
Adios, au revoire, auf wiener sehen.
(and my children, oldest 30, could also do that – culture runs deep.)
Please enjoy MTG being chased out of park in Manhattan by people yelling mean things at her like “Hit her with the space lasers!”
That is how you deal with her.
If someone has no interest in reality (either because of insanity or nihilistic denial of reality), don’t give them a platform, and chase them off any platform they are on.
I would also have accepted Leslie Stahl asking “what the fuck is wrong with you?” and aggressively pushing that line of questioning. And following her interview with someone who can address the divorce from reality and insane conspiracy theories.
@Gustopher: Hahahahahhahahaha……I’m not sure if I’m “literally” dying or just having an asthma attack from laughing so hard at poor Marge hiding behind her hired bodyguards and the guy yelling “Hit her with the space lasers!”, but that was great shit! 😛 😛
The decline of 60 Minutes began with the death of Don Hewitt in 2009, if not before. It lost its spine and the number of actual, significant investigative reports it has been involved in on a yearly basis has plummeted.
It wasn’t that this was a softball interview of a political figure that was so offensive as 60 Minutes has been doing those for years now. It’s that it was a softball interview of a political figure that so much of its core audience finds reprehensible that was the bridge too far. But, in reality, they should have been complaining about this (and Stahl’s overall fitness for her job) years ago.
60 minutes helped the credibly accused Duke Lacrosse rapists defy a judge’s gag/let justice work order that was preventing them from further undermining and tainting their case with disinformation.