On the same day reports circulated that the reporters behind a fatally flawed, retracted 60 Minutes story may return to CBS News' airwaves as soon as early January, the program again faced criticism for a report that critics are calling a “puff piece” and an “infomercial.”
On December 15, 60 Minutes aired a report on the National Security Agency based on unprecedented access to its headquarters and interviews with Agency staff, including its chief, Keith Alexander, who discussed the concerns many Americans have about its operations since the disclosures by Edward Snowden.
The segment opened with reporter John Miller's acknowledgement that he had once worked at another federal intelligence agency. It featured no critics of the NSA. Miller explained his thoughts on the story in an interview with CBS News, saying that the NSA's view is “really the side of the story that has been mined only in the most superficial ways. We've heard plenty from the critics. We've heard a lot from Edward Snowden. Where there's been a distinctive shortage is, putting the NSA to the test and saying not just 'We called for comment today' but to get into the conversation and say that sounds a lot like spying on Americans, and then say, 'Well, explain that.'”
Miller's report was immediately ripped apart by NSA critics and veteran journalists. Some have called the veracity of CBS News' reporting into question. Others termed the segment a “puff piece” and an “embarrassing” “infomercial,” saying that it filmed was under guidelines that overwhelmingly favored the agency and proved the effectiveness of the NSA's communications staff.
The NSA report is only the latest of several heavily criticized 60 Minutes stories. Most notably, the network was forced to retract and remove from the airwaves the reporters responsible for a segment based on a supposed eyewitness to the 2012 Benghazi attacks who apparently fabricated his story. The day after the NSA story ran and less than three weeks after the leaves of absence were announced, Politico reported that those journalists, Lara Logan and Max McClellan, have “started booking camera crews for news packages” and could return to 60 Minutes as early as January. In recent weeks the program has also been criticized for reports on Social Security disability benefits and Amazon.com CEO Jeff Bezos.
This series of debacles was noted by former CBS News correspondent Marvin Kalb, who was at one time the moderator of NBC's Meet the Press, who wrote that a program that “used to be the gold standard of network magazine programs” is increasingly “under fire.” He concluded:
What's clear from this episode is that 60 Minutes is not facing another Lara Logan embarrassment. Miller did not get his facts wrong; he just did a story on 60 Minutes that should never have been on 60 Minutes. It was a promotional piece, almost by his own admission. In addition, the CBS Evening News with Scott Pelley did a story on the 60 Minutes Miller piece to help promote it, as though it were an exceptional exclusive, which it was not.
In a funny way, all of this fresh criticism can be seen as a compliment. People expect 60 Minutes to be a place on the dial for tough questioning and rigorous reporting. When it does anything less than that, it opens itself to snap judgments that may be unfair but should not be surprising. It should, though, suggest strongly that CBS has further need for continuing self-examination.
Politico's Dylan Byers similarly opined that 60 Minutes has had “a terrible year” and that the program “is desperately in need of a news package that earns it praise rather than criticism.It needs to put up a hard-hitting investigation, fact-checked to the teeth, that doesn't come off as a promotional puff-piece. Because its reputation as the gold standard of television journalism has taken some serious hits of late.”
Miller referred questions from Media Matters about the segment to a CBS News spokesperson who declined to comment on the record.